UK lawyers appeal conviction for anti-gay sign

January 14, 2004

LONDON — A preacher's civil rights were violated when he was fined for displaying a sign that called homosexuality immoral, lawyers argued at an appeal hearing Tuesday.

Harry John Hammond, 69, a preacher for 20 years, was convicted by magistrates at Wimborne in southwest England in April 2002 of displaying a sign reading "Stop Immorality, Stop Homosexuality, Stop Lesbianism" in nearby Bournemouth. Hammond has since died and his executors are appealing his conviction.

The estate's lawyers told the High Court in London Tuesday that he had been a sincere evangelical Christian and the conviction breached his right of free expression.

Hugh Tomlinson, representing Hammond's executors, said when Hammond displayed his sign in Bournemouth in October 2001, he drew an angry crowd of 30-40 people.

"There was a struggle. He himself (Hammond) was subjected to a number of assaults. Soil was thrown at him and water poured over his head," Tomlinson said.

"Someone tried to seize the sign and he was knocked to the ground. But there is no suggestion he physically assaulted anybody.

He was the victim of the assault, not the perpetrator." Hammond was arrested and fined 300 pounds (US$540) for displaying a sign which was "threatening, abusive or insulting within the sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress."

Tomlinson said magistrates too had been mistaken.

"It is perfectly proper for the court to restrict 'hate speech,' what the Americans call 'fighting words,' 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," he said.

Nigel Seed, appearing for the Director of Public Prosecutions, said homosexuals were among groups entitled to protection under both European and domestic law.

"Members of the general public going into the town square that Saturday afternoon were so affronted that they expected the police to intervene," Seed said.

Although the sign did not directly incite violence, there was "a hint" of incitement in the way it was phrased, Seed said. - Sapa-AP

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