Freedom of speech fears for Market Drayton councillors
Two Market Drayton town councillors have raised fears that their freedom of speech as elected representatives, and right to address media queries, are being limited by the council.
Tim Beckett and Mike Smith spoke at Market Drayton Town Council's meeting on Thursday night, after a reminder was circulated to all councillors about relations with the media.
After a number of councillors were recently contacted on social media about changes to disabled toilets in the town, all of the councillors were reminded of their standing order which said: "Requests from the press or other media for an oral or written comment or statement from the council, its councillors or staff shall be handled by the clerk, mayor or appropriate chairman of a standing committee."
Councillor Beckett, who is not a committee chair, then said: "Are you saying we can't make a comment? Because that is what's happening at the moment.
"Are you saying the press can't contact any member directly? Are you saying freedom of speech is done?"
Town clerk Julie Jones responded: "It is difficult. Social media is the bigger problem rather than the press.
"I think you have to decide for yourself. We can't decide for you.
"But certainly anything to do with council business has to go through us."
Councillor Beckett said that the policy put councillors in a "difficult situation".
Councillor Smith said that it was understandable for queries about commercially sensitive information to be addressed by the clerk but that he still had concerns.
"Unless you are trying to take away my right as a British subject of freedom of speech – that is a problem," he said.
"It's a grey area, I know."
The clerk said: "I accept what you are saying, but when something get raised on Facebook then I get emails saying 'a councillor has told me this'.
"They sometimes don't see that there's a difference. They don't see that you're an individual."
Councillor Roy Aldcroft suggested: "If you don't know the full details, you should always check with the clerk."
Speaking afterwards, Councillor Beckett said the discussion left him feeling "ineffective" as a councillor.
"The way the discussion went at the meeting it seems to imply we can’t make any comments to the press or public to do with the council even if it is our own view, we have to refer back to the clerk or the chair of the committee for them to make a comment.
"Whenever a member of the public who voted me to represent them asks anything about council business, do I have to reply 'Sorry, no comment'?
"I was elected to represent the people so I will still continue to give my views, but yes, anything to do with council business I can’t answer I will refer back to the clerk which is what I did before anyway."