An evangelical Christian assaulted by onlookers who took offense to his sign calling for an end to homosexuality was “properly convicted” of a criminal offense, Britain’s High Court has ruled.
Defenders of the late Harry Hammond, 69, argued Tuesday the April 2002 conviction interfered with his freedom of religion and right to free expression, the London Telegraph reported.
But the two-judge panel said Hammond’s behavior “went beyond legitimate protest.”
Legal advocate Hugh Tomlinson, appearing for Hammond’s executors, described the scene of the October 2001 protest in Bournemouth, England.
About 30 or 40 angry people gathered around Hammond as he held a sign saying: “Stop Immorality, Stop Homosexuality, Stop Lesbianism,” and had a reference to Jesus.
“There was a struggle,” Tomlinson said. “[Hammond] himself was subjected to a number of assaults. Soil was thrown at him and water poured over his head. Someone tried to seize the sign and he was knocked to the ground.”
“But there is no suggestion he physically assaulted anybody,” Tomlinson said. “He was the victim of the assault, not the perpetrator.”
Nevertheless, Hammond was arrested for breach of the peace. He was charged and convicted under the 1986 Public Order Act for displaying a sign which was “threatening, abusive or insulting within the sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress.”
Hammond was fined 300 British pounds, about $550, and ordered to pay 395 pounds, or $725, in legal costs.
The High Court judges decided the restriction on Hammond’s right to freedom of expression under the European Convention on Human Rights had the legitimate aim of preventing disorder due to the crowd’s reaction to his sign, the British Press Association reported.
Hammond’s conduct was not reasonable, they said, and the prosecution was a “proportionate response.”
Arguing for Hammond, Tomlinson said the case “raises important points concerning freedom of expression by means of a sign and freedom of religion.”
“It is perfectly proper for the court to restrict ‘hate speech’, what the Americans call ‘fighting words,'” he said, “but it is not proper to restrict speech which is not put in a hateful or fighting way, even though it may be offensive to a particular section of the community, and even though it may cause members of the public to react adversely or even violently.”