Fringe Box



Opinion: Freedom of Speech Is Precious – But Nothing To Be Scared Of

Published on: 17 Apr, 2014
Updated on: 17 Apr, 2014

Dragon Says 470It is a sign of our mature and free society that we take freedom of speech for granted – but, of course, we shouldn’t. The cost of that freedom is buried in the ground, some of it in living memory, and there are millions in the world that still don’t have it.

Free speech can be abused and some sections of the press have been grossly irresponsible at times but the freedom to give an opinion and to criticise, especially those who have any power, is essential for a healthy democracy.

[See: ‘You Won’t Gag Us Say Aldermen’ As New Protocol Is Revised and  Letter: Call To Challenge Resolution Over Freemen And Aldermen]

So why is it that our borough council cannot bear the thought of honorary aldermen and honorary freemen giving their opinions? Just what are they scared of?

They say that there is a public perception that they speak on behalf of the council. Sadly, most citizens don’t follow council affairs at all: they don’t even vote in local elections. The minority that do read local government news are well aware of the distinction.

In any case, the public should not be patronised in this way. Doubtless there are some who do not understand the constitutional position of the members of the House of Lords but they are not prevented from speaking out. Sometimes they speak out against the government, even one led by their own party.

Recently Lord Tebbit did, representing the views of many that Culture Secretary Maria Miller should step down following the investigation into her expenses claims. Many would say that he was right to do so, no one has suggested he should be gagged.

Our hon aldermen and freemen have been recognised by the council for the exemplary service they have given. Why should we be deprived of their views? Their experience makes them extra qualified to express a valid opinion and, of course, the rest of us can agree or disagree with them as we wish.

If a doctor writes to a newspaper expressing a view on a medical matter it does not mean that the opinion given is necessarily right or correct but it shows that the author has some experience of the subject. No one would sensibly suggest that the medical qualification should be kept secret.

So why should an alderman or freeman? They are honourable men and women who have, through years of service, demonstrated that they care about our town and surrounding villages. We should be pleased to hear their various views, at least as much as those from all other citizens.

The idea that they should take on the position of a constitutional monarch and remain above politics is absurd. It appears that the council is so super sensitive that it cannot bear criticism, especially from those that know how the council works – or doesn’t.

To use a colloquial phrase the council needs to “man up”. Criticism, even unfair criticism, is part of the rough and tumble that exists in all public life. Strong councillors with good policies, making good decisions should be robust enough to bear it.

It would not be quite so bad if there were not so many more pressing problems to deal with, for instance the Local Plan and all that it entails or the growing reliance on food banks by some of our fellow residents, in
one of the richest boroughs in England.

The motion that was passed states: “Honorary aldermen [or freemen] will be expected to conduct themselves in such a manner so as to not bring the office of honorary alderman [or freemen] or the Council into disrepute nor to use the title or allow it to be associated with any matter of public controversy or any matter which is in any way political in nature. The Council also expects honorary aldermen to refrain from making public statements which are critical of the Council.”

But how actually will they enforce it? If, for instance, Hon. Freeman/Alderman Fred Bloggs writes to The Guildford Dragon as “Mr Fred Bloggs”, and criticises the council, what is to stop this online paper adding an explanatory footnote informing readers of the writer’s position, as we do on other occasions when we feel it is relevant?

Come on GBC, we hoped the days of a bullying and coercive culture were in the past. You can do better than bring in these petty and unnecessary rules. Rather than stifle debate and comment you should be encouraging it. What about your “core value” of openness and transparency?

It would be a sad day for our borough if ever someone was to have an honour withdrawn, to be “de-frocked” or whatever the term should be, for simply giving their opinion on local issues. The rest of us might want to hear their views given as former councillors with relevant experience.

Fortunately, this legally questionable regulation has been so poorly thought through, that it is very unlikely to be used. If it did, it is almost bound to draw unprecedented criticism of the council, and not just locally.

In our view, whoever dreamt this up is risking bringing the council into disrepute far more than any hon freeman or alderman. Perhaps they should be disciplined?

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Responses to Opinion: Freedom of Speech Is Precious – But Nothing To Be Scared Of

  1. Peter Bullen Reply

    April 19, 2014 at 9:57 am

    Well said, Guildford Dragon News! Perhaps a Dragon poll on the subject will reveal how widespread is the revulsion against this attempt to gag free speech.

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