An anti-abortion campaigner who is banned from displaying a poster featuring an image of a dead foetus alongside a picture of the Labour MP Stella Creasy has failed to overturn a council order against him.
Christian Hacking challenged the imposition of a community protection notice (CPN) after he put up the image of what he said was a “24-week-old aborted baby girl” in Creasy’s constituency in Walthamstow, north-east London.
Creasy, 43, was pregnant at the time. She has been a vocal supporter of women’s right to choose and led a successful campaign last year to extend abortion to Northern Ireland.
Hacking, 29, from nearby Hackney, said the display of the bloody image was part of a “StopStella” event last October. At a two-day hearing in February, he argued that the community protection notice ban imposed by Waltham Forest borough council was illegal.
He urged the court to reconsider the matter on human rights grounds, comparing the emotional impact of the display to that of images of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, whose lifeless body was pictured in news stories around the world highlighting the Syrian refugee crisis in 2015.
Hacking told the hearing “The whole business of what we do is exposing the reality of abortion to members of the public who don’t know what abortion looks like. Generally speaking, we know that the public are misinformed by what abortion procedures entail.”
Hacking, from the campaign group Centre for Bio-ethical Reform UK, said the 10ft x 10ft (3-metre x 3-metre) poster was designed to educate the public about abortion.
At Thames magistrates court on Wednesday, the district judge Jonathan Radway dismissed the appeal during a two-minute hearing.
In his written decision, he said: “I find a prolonged static display, intended to last a couple of hours in the busy middle of the day, unavoidable to those entering the town square, of a deeply disturbing image which caused harm to some observers, is beyond the margin of what freedom of expression requires, even for political speech.
“Was the CPN a proportionate response to the situation? After anxious consideration, I have concluded it was.”
Radway said his ruling was “not about the rights and wrongs of abortion”.
Creasy has previously told MPs how she felt “harassed” by the campaign and sought police assistance.
During the February hearing, one local resident told the court she felt “truly sick in her stomach” on seeing the image, and had “been left feeling anxious and nervous when approaching the location in town”.
Neither Hacking nor Creasy was present in court for the hearing on Wednesday.
Hacking and his supporters said they would appeal against the judgment.
Andrea Williams, the chief executive of the Christian Legal Centre, which is supporting the case, said: “The ruling hinges on the idea that this image, showing the tragic reality of abortion, causes significant and lasting emotional harm.
“But however uncomfortable the truth, we must be free to make these distressing realities known, or the vastly more horrific truth of abortion becomes immune to criticism.
“There is a high bar to restricting free speech. Freedom of speech must include, and has been ruled in law to include, that which is shocking, provocative and offensive. Political campaigns are often shocking and disturbing.”
Hacking said: “I am deeply disappointed that our appeal to show the reality of abortion to the people of Waltham Forest has not been successful. The real victim of abortion is not MP Stella Creasy, or those negatively impacted by its visualisation, but the unborn child.
“How can we see positive change in the UK if politicians and councils are allowed to dictate how we express peaceable opinions in public? For the sake of the unborn and for freedom of speech, we must take this appeal further and hold those authorities to account.”
Clare Coghill, the leader of Waltham Forest council, said: “We are glad that the court has agreed that our actions to protect residents of Waltham Forest against gratuitously offensive imagery being displayed in Walthamstow town centre were proportionate. We acted after receiving numerous complaints from members of the public about these images.
“We fundamentally believe in free speech and the right to protest. However, we also believe that those who live, work, and study in the borough have the right to use their town centre without being aggressively confronted with deliberately provocative material.”