Council row over ‘freedom of speech’

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A heated debate took place at Whitby Town Council’s monthly meeting last week.

The dispute centred around a letter sent by the council to the borough council’s legal department, deploring what they perceived as an attack upon freedom of speech.

Coun Ian Havelock proposed the original motion and criticised the wording of the letter. He said: “As far as I’m concerned it shouldn’t have gone in that form.

“It allows a good deal of wiggle room to what it means.”

Coun Havelock and his seconder, Coun Amanda Smith said they did not understand their motion would lead to a letter being sent to Lisa Dixon, head of legal services at SBC.

However, a number of the other councillors and, most importantly, the town clerks, did believe this was the case and so a letter was sent. Coun Niall Carson said: “It was my clear understanding that we were to write a letter deploring the response, and that’s why I abstained.”

The motion did not refer directly to a letter sent from the borough council’s legal department to the operators of a local website, dealing with alleged defamatory content. The letter, when presented to the town council, had the name of the recipients blacked out, but it was widely interpreted by members of the town council that the website was the recipient, and also that this was what was being discussed.

When Coun Mike Murphy spoke out, stating the council should never have gotten involved with the matter, Coun Havelock retorted: “It was nothing to do with the website. To assert so, you should actually be ashamed of yourself. I’m surprised you have taken such an aversion to voting on free speech.”

When the motion was proposed, five councillors voted for it, one against, and nine abstained from voting. This meant the motion passed, despite two-thirds of councillors not supporting it.

As to the issue of whether the councillors had intended a letter to be sent, Mayor John Freeman - who voted against the original motion - had the final word. He said: “If you are putting something forward it’s reasonable that you should expect something to happen. There needs to be an action, otherwise we are just here talking about things.”