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High Court rules that Humanist, Stonewall and 'Ex-Gay' Bus Adverts should all have been banned

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In a significant High Court judgment, Mrs Justice Lang has labelled bus adverts from the British Humanist Association and prominent homosexual lobby group Stonewall as ‘highly offensive’ and ruled that they breached Transport for London’s advertising policy.

But she also ruled that an advert placed by the Core Issues Trust, in response to Stonewall’s controversial campaign, fell foul of the policy too and for that reason was legitimately barred by Transport for London (TfL).

However, recognising the seriousness of the issues raised, the Judge gave leave for appeal, on the basis that the claim brought by Core Issues Trust concerned "an interference with the right to freedom of expression by a public body, which is a matter of such fundamental importance that it merits consideration by an appellate court."

The judgment provokes serious questions about the involvement of London Mayor, Boris Johnson, who was seeking re-election at the time. It also contains extensive criticism of the handling of the matter by Transport for London, which is Chaired by Mr Johnson.

At several points, Mrs Justice Lang drew attention to evidence gaps from the Mayor’s Office (e.g.: “Regrettably, the response from the Mayor’s office was not in evidence” (Para 55); “For reasons which are not clear from the incomplete evidence before me, but might have been explained by the missing evidence from the Mayor’s Office …”(Para 62)).

These omissions made it hard for the Judge to establish with absolute certainty the precise nature of Mr Johnson’s involvement. She did however recognise that he influenced the relevant TfL official.

Media reports at the time indicated that the Mayor had personally taken the decision to bar the Advert. However, as the Judge noted, the relevant press release from the Mayor’s Office, “was not made available to the Court”.

The Judgment highlights TfL's hastiness in reaching its decision to bar the advert. Mrs Justice Lang said that she did not find TfL's justification for this to be pausible. She continued "Judging from the evidence, I consider the more likely reason for the haste was to avoid unwelcome criticism and publicity, both for TfL and the Mayor.”

The Judge found that in barring Core Issues’ Advert, having previously allowed those of Stonewall and the British Humanist Asssociation, TfL had applied its policy “inconsistently” and “partially”. She concludes that TfL’s decision-making process was “procedurally unfair”, “in breach of its own procedures” and “demonstrated a failure to consider the relevant issues”.

However, in spite of this severe criticism, Mrs Justice Lang found that TfL was right to ban the Advert placed by Core Issues in response to Stonewall’s campaign arguing that bus advertising is not a suitable context for the controversial and offensive message that she believed characterised both campaigns and that of the British Humanist Association.

Reacting to the judgment, Andrea Minichiello Williams, Director the Christian Legal Centre, which has supported Dr Davidson and the Core Issues Trust said:

“According to the judgment, adverts placed by Stonewall and the British Humanist Association were in breach of TfL’s own guidelines. Yet they were allowed to run, even though they proved to be highly controversial at the time. Then, as soon as a Christian group responded to Stonewall’s provocation and dared to challenge the reigning political orthodoxy, the message was banned by the Mayor's Transport Authority.

"This case vividly exposes the huge asymmetry and censorship that characterises public debate at the moment, especially around sexual ethics.

“The message that some people are ‘Ex-Gay’ should not be considered offensive or controversial. Some people choose not to act on same-sex attraction. They should not be ostracised for doing so but helped. Mike Davidson and Core Issues Trust simply want to offer such help to those who experience same-sex attraction but would prefer to change that.”

“The role of Boris Johnson is also very worrying. If further evidence comes to light that he was not only abusing his position in light of the Mayoral election but also seeking to cover it up, then the political implications could be huge.”
 

See also: Key freedom of expression case heard at High Court following ban on bus adverts

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