In a court hearing last week, senior and front-line staff at Waltham Forest Council admitted to acting unlawfully and being out of their depth after shutting down a pro-life campaign after pressure from their local pro-abortion MP.
Exposing the reality of abortion
In October 2019, the Centre for-Bio-Ethical Reform UK (CBR UK) launched its campaign #StopStella in Walthamstow, London – the constituency of MP Stella Creasy. The aim of the campaign was to expose to her constituents the realities of her extreme abortion policies. These include legalising abortion for any reason up to 28 weeks into a pregnancy.
The campaign itself involved displaying medically validated images of what an aborted baby looks like at 24 weeks. CBR UK members and volunteers were also distributing information to members of the public highlighting their MP’s abortion policies.
You can read more about what happened in the legal skeleton argument.
Shutting down free speech
The response from Stella Creasy, Waltham Forest Council and certain members of the public was unprecedented. Stella Creasy sought to criminalise the displaying of images and used any means possible to shut down debate and any further exposure of the issue.
Video footage reveals Waltham Forest Council officers subsequently confiscating CBR UK’s banners and issuing Christian Hacking, of CBR UK, with a Community Protection Notice (CPN). The CPN would now see him prosecuted if he returns to the borough to display the images.
Supported by the Christian Legal Centre, CBR UK is appealing the CPN. The outcome is expected to be handed down by District Judge Jonathan Radway at the beginning of April.
The excerpts below from the court hearing on 26 and 27 February 2020 expose council officers admitting that their actions were unlawful while under cross-examination from barrister Michael Phillips. Exchanges with witnesses who opposed the displaying of the images also reveal how poorly the concept of freedom of speech is understood by the public.
Andrea Williams, chief executive of the Christian Legal Centre, commented: “District Judge Jonathan Radway has heard front-line and senior members of Waltham Forest Council admit to acting unlawfully.
“Stella Creasy has not enjoyed being exposed to the realities of her own pro-abortion campaign. To campaign to legalise abortion means that we have to face up to its tragic reality. Instead, Stella is using all the power she has to shut it down.
“If we are not free to protest abortion then we are not free at all in this society.”
Key exchanges with Waltham Forest Council employees’
David Beach – Director of Regulatory Services at Waltham Forest Council
Michael Phillips: Are you aware, in hindsight, that your officers of the Council did not have the power to seize the banners? The Council acted illegally.
David Beach: In that instance: yes.
Michael Phillips: Would you like to offer an apology?
David Beach: I regret that we acted in that way.
Michael Phillips: Were any officers disciplined [for acting illegally]?
David Beach: No officers were disciplined.
Michael Phillips: Were you aware that your officers did not engage with Mr Hacking?
David Beach: Mr Connor read out the CPN to Christian Hacking.
Michael Phillips: Could you have done something different [rather than issue the CPW and CPN]? Would you agree that your officers were trigger happy or even casual in their approach?
David Beach: No, I would not say this.
Michael Phillips: Public feeling was running quite high. How many people were complaining?
David Beach: I don’t want to put a number on that.
Michael Phillips: Are you aware that ‘distress’ is irrelevant in the argument for free speech?
David Beach: [Answer indistinct]
Michael Phillips: There are at least two factors that have to be considered [before any action on limiting freedom of speech can be considered]. Protection of the public and consideration of free speech. Public feeling cannot be the sole criteria.
Michael Phillips: There were many people who were positive [to the protest].
David Beach: That was irrelevant.
Phil Connor – then Interim Anti-Social Behaviour Order (ASBO) Services Manager for Waltham Forest Council
Michael Phillips: What do you know about the Human Rights Act?
Phil Connor: I am familiar with the act, and Article 10 and the ECHR enshrined in British law, the right to freedom of expression, which has rights and responsibilities. When public health is threatened, inciting to riot, the downfall of the monarchy…
Michael Phillips: The downfall of the monarchy?
Phil Connor: There are restrictions on freedom of expressions due to health, distress and public order issues.
Michael Phillips: Do you know that for political speech the threshold is much higher? This campaign was political speech. You mentioned that you wanted to have the least intrusive measure, but you took the banners. Taking the banners was an infringement of free speech.
Proportionality is at the heart of free speech.
Phil Connor: Yes, I know the concept.
Michael Phillips: Ah, so you know the concept of proportionality, but you didn’t mention it in the training you received. Did you just remember it now?
Phil Connor: I am well versed with the concept of proportionality.
Michael Phillips: There were warning signs.
Phil Connor: I can categorically state that is incorrect.
Michael Phillips: Your officers don’t use notebooks. Did you make contemporaneous notes after the incident?
Phil Connor: Yes, I went to the library and wrote them up. I believe I had a sketch and jotting down. I used them as an aide memoire.
Michael Phillips: What happened to them?
Phil Connor: I destroyed them.
Michael Phillips: What consideration did you give to the Human Rights Act and the ECHR prior to 3 October?
Phil Connor: I focused on a single item, the image.
Michael Phillips: Your officers broke the law.
Phil Connor: Yes.
Michael Phillips: Does that make you feel good?
Phil Connor: It does not feel good. Would I make the same decision again? Definitely not but I was surrounded by anger and distress.
Michael Phillips: Why did you take the photo of Stella Creasy?
Phil Connor: I considered [both images] part of the same message.
Michael Phillips: Was there anything distressing about the picture of Stella Creasy?
Phil Connor: No.
Michael Phillips: You say that both sides [the crowd and CBR UK] were “getting in each other’s faces”. How many from CBR UK, who from CBR UK?
Phil Connor: I cannot say, I cannot give a description.
Michael Phillips: Do you accept that you should have reasoned with the crowd?
Phil Connor: Yes, I accept that.
Michael Phillips: Did you discuss with the police when you realised they were not going to interfere?
Phil Connor: No, I did not.
James King – ASBO Officer at Waltham Forest Council
Michael Phillips: So, turning to 3 of October. Was there a plan of action? Did you have a meeting beforehand to discuss what you were going to do?
James King: There was no meeting, no plan of action.
Michael Phillips: Have you ever been to a demonstration before?
James King: No.
Michael Phillips: Would you say you were out of your depth?
James King: I would say I was out of my depth.
Michael Phillips: Do you accept that the Council acted illegally by taking away the banners?
James King: That is my understanding
Michael Phillips: The crowd decided what you should do.
James King: It might have been a public order issue.
Michael Phillips: But on the subject of public order…you are aware that when the council acted illegally by taking down the banners the jeering and heckling increased.
Michael Phillips: Did you tell the crowd that CBR UK had a lawful right to protest?
James King: No.
Michael Phillips: Did you reason with the crowd?
James King: No.
Michael Phillips: Do you accept that there was an alternative way to tackle the situation? You could have reasoned with the crowd and asked them to calm down?
James King: [Answer indistinct]
Michael Phillips: Why didn’t you reason with the crowd?
James King: It didn’t occur to me.
Michael Phillips: Why couldn’t you have moved the people on?
James King: It did not occur to me to do so but I accept in hindsight it would have been a good thing.
Brian Nish – Senior ASBO Officer at Waltham Forest Council
Michael Phillips: What do you know Human Rights legislation?
Brian Nish: I have had some training
Michael Phillips: When was your training?
Brian Nish: About a year ago.
Michael Phillips: Did it touch on Freedom of Speech?
Brian Nish: No, I have never been taught anything about Freedom of Speech.
Michael Phillips: Do you understand that Freedom of Speech is protected in law? Wouldn’t you want to obey the law? The banners should not have been taken down. You were breaking the law.
Brian Nish: If that is breaking the law, then I guess I did.
Michael Phillips: Do you understand that unpleasant views, that are not threatening or abusive are not illegal?
Brian Nish: Yes. We were getting feedback. People were distressed seeing the picture and they were given no choice in seeing the image. I felt it was lawful under the Anti-social Behaviour Act.
Michael Phillips: So, can I clarify that you said the distress, the image and the tone of the crowd, you thought it was right to take it down?
Brian Nish: [No answer]
Michael Phillips: If the image was on display but there had been no public order issue, would you have still got involved?
Brian Nish: Yes, possibly.
Judge Radway questions Brian Nish
Judge Radway: Christian Hacking had important legal documents. Did you reflect on the material, on Christian Hacking’s material?
Brian Nish: Unfortunately, we did not consider any legal material.
Judge Radway: Why was the picture on the left removed [of Stella Creasy] when you removed the image on the right?
Brian Nish: [No answer]
Public witnesses against the displaying of the images
Michael Phillips: Do you accept that you acted unlawfully when you took the banners down?
Irem: Probably. I was using bad language, but they don’t have a right to show such images.
Michael Phillips: So, Freedom of Speech to you means that people can approach you as long as you like the message?
Michael Phillips: Do you agree that people should have Freedom of Speech?
Mandy Baker: No! I don’t want to see it.
Michael Phillips: You say in paragraph 1 of your witness statement that you were ‘immediately surrounded’ by CBR UK and you say you felt ‘quite intimidated’.
Mandy Baker: Yes.
Michael Phillips: But you approached them.
Mandy Baker: [No answer]
Michael Phillips: So how many people from CBR UK spoke to you?
Mandy Baker: I don’t know how many people spoke to me. I was confused.
Michael Phillips: Why did you go towards the image?
Mandy Baker: I had heard that they [CBR UK] has been operating in the area – so I approached them.
Michael Phillips: What if had just been about the images [so no CBR-UK Protest].
Mandy Baker: I can’t understand them being separate.
Michael Phillips: Do you understand Freedom of Speech?
Lesley Finlayson: Yes, but it was the image that I objected to.
Michael Phillips: But you do not set the law.
Lesley Finlayson: That image cannot be lawful.
Michael Phillips: Do you know that an image is not illegal simply because it is disturbing?
Find out more about Christian Hacking