It is a familiar sight in angry comments sections of local newspapers around the region. “I’ll see you in court!” and “My Barrister will be in touch!” are the two sinister phrases uttered by angry Councillors and their ilk on a regular basis. But how much truth is in this?
Can you actually be taken to court for criticizing the Council?
The legal facts
A key bit of legal precedent on this topic is a ground-breaking legal case of Derbyshire County Council V Times Newspapers Ltd. In this case, a controversial local Council were allegedly attempting to silence journalists who were asking questions the Council did not like. This case set the legal precedent that despite all of the threats, hot air and bluster from local authorities a council can not sue someone for defamation. This is case even went as far to state that “Local Authorities must be open to criticism as political and administrative bodies, and so cannot be allowed to sue in defamation. Such a right would operate as ‘a chill factor’ on free speech.”.
This excellent piece of law also mentions the right of free speech as enshrined under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948 and Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Waste of Police Resources
Another more recent case on this topic was the case of Anti-Corruption campaigner Julian Saunders who was behind the blog known as the Sandwell Skidder. His blog mainly aimed to expose alleged the questionable activity and corruption of Sandwell Council. Saunders was however targeted for “immediate arrest” in a leaked email by Council leader Steve Eling to West Midlands Police according to the Sunday Times article “Labour town hall chief Steve Eling told police to arrest blogger”. The Council leader was left red-faced when Chief Superintendent Richard Baker told him he could not simply have someone arrested for criticising the Council and said it was wasting police time according to The Sunday Times.
Steve Ealing and Julian Saunders
So next time you get threatened with a lawsuit for criticizing bin collection cuts by a self-professed “legal eagle” in the comments section you can tell them to brush up on their law!