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NMD Council accused of attempting to ‘take away freedom of speech’ with social media policy

A Newry, Mourne and Down District councillor has accused the local authority of trying to take away his freedom of speech with their social media policy.

Alliance councillor Patrick Brown said the council’s  policy was “too heavy handed” and he thought “it didn’t differentiate enough between council staff and elected representatives”.

The matter was raised at the council’s Strategy Policy and Resources committee on June 17.

Speaking at the meeting, the Downpatrick councillor said: “I feel that part of our role is to scrutinise and in some cases constructively criticise where necessary the functions of the council. I think this is not only our right as elected members but a vital part of the democratic process.

“It makes no reference to elected members freedom of speech and expression and simply linking [the policy] to the code of conduct is not sufficient in my view.

“I think this policy needs to set out the difference  clearly between what is expected of elected members and group them in with employees consistently as it currently does.

“There is a paragraph on page 10 of the procedure document which I find troubling around repetitive negative messages which aim to provoke a response or do not constuctively add to the conversation.

“I think this incredibly subjective requirement where one person’s interpretation of what is negative or constructive could completely differ from another person and I certainly think this needs to be removed or clearly stated that it doesn’t apply to councillors.”

SDLP’s Gareth Sharvin disagreed with Cllr Brown’s comments, saying that “no one should think they are above anyone else from the council”.

“We all represent the council to the public and we should all adhere to best practise and conduct ourselves in a way we should conduct business, ” said Cllr Sharvin.

“I do not agree with everything that councillor Brown says.”

Meanwhile, Sinn Fein’s Barra Ó Muirí criticised councillor Brown for his comments. He said that all complaints should be handled internally within the council.

He added: “You can look at in many different ways and why you were elected in the first place onto the council and what the voters want from you. It might be to improve the look of an area or better representations for a DEA.

“Never went I was canvassing [to become a councillor] did anyone ever say to me that they wanted me to go in and criticise, fall out with and fall foul of the code of conduct.

“There’s not everything that happens in the council that I particularly am delighted with or our party is delighted with but the last place I would consider going is social media. I would pick up the phone and I would contact [chief executive] Marie Ward.

“I would sit down and write a strongly worded email if need be or I would bring it up at a future meeting. The last place that I would go is social media where my words could be misinterpreted or misconstrued.”

The Slieve Gullion councillor added: “People would then think that I was a councillor that was out to get the council, who wasn’t getting along with other people and I would expect to be reported for being in breach of the code of conduct.

“I can’t stress highly enough the importance of a social media policy in a body like the council. It’s there to protect [the council] and ensure that no-one is picked on in social media.”

Assistant Director of Corporate Planning and Strategy, Regina Mackin also refuted councillor Brown’s claims.

She said: “We state quite clearly [in the document] that everybody has the right to freedom of speech. It has to be balanced not only with legislation but what is generally accepted.

“As a council we have a duty of care to our employees and elected members. There is freedom of speech allowed but it has to be within the parameters of what is correct and what is acceptable.”

Councillor Brown later replied that it was “ironic” that Sinn Fein was telling him not to criticise the council on social media.

“Just a few weeks ago, [Barra  Ó Muirí] was giving off on Facebook about Princes Charles visit to the area and in my opinion it came across as quite critical of the council actually because he said that the chief executive knew about it and he hadn’t and that was my interpretation.”

Committee members voted in favour of passing the council’s social media policy.

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