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Byron Shire
May 9, 2021

Free speech or liable?

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When you attend a Council meeting there is a sign attached to the entry door, which warns the public that they may be personally liable for any defamatory remarks they make inside.

When the meeting starts the chair provides a slightly more detailed warning: ‘For those addressing the meeting today the Code of Meeting Practice requires that you refrain from disorderly conduct such as making any insult, defamatory comment or personal reflection against any person, present or not at the meeting, during the course of your address to Council and any answers that may be given in response to questions from Councillors.’

This is stated to be a summary of the Code of Meeting Practice but it actually contains elements from a different document called the Code of Conduct. The later is explicitly limited to elected councillors and permanent staff and does not apply to members of the public. This limitation does not, however, in practice prevent either the Mayor or Deputy Mayor from applying it to whoever offends them or with whom they simply disagree. One may make a mild criticism of a member of staff’s performance, only to see Simon Richardson jump up angrily and throw the whole question on a submission into the rubbish bin.

There are two terms in the mayor’s little warning that particularly rile me: ‘personal reflection’ and ‘insult’, neither of which are listed in the Code of Meeting Practice as prohibited for members of the public. The mayor’s thinking appears to be this: if you criticise a staff-member’s performance then you are insulting him/her and making a personal reflection, and therefore you must be silenced.

It’s hard to believe that a person educated in Australia’s top university could function in what I consider to be a sloppy anti-intellectual manner – but then it seems to me that Simon truly believes that his major function is to protect the morale of the staff.

One could resolve these issues of free speech by taking a challenge to the Supreme Court. Just because a particular code says this or that doesn’t mean said conduct is constitutionally or otherwise valid, and the liberal-democrat tradition and common law tend to put the onus of proof on those who want restrictions. But why should I incur the cost and inconvenience of a court challenge? If the mayor believes that he has, or should have, particular powers to shut people up, then let him obtain legal clarification that he is able to do so, before he starts throwing his weight around.

In the meantime I have filed further Code of Conduct complaints alleging, among other things, that he has exceeded his power in a number of ways.


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1 COMMENT

  1. Quite interesting.
    Quite interesting, since in council chambers throughout Australia, the regular sign in the public gallery usually states: “Quiet please so others may hear proceedings”.
    The sign is to intimate that the public galley audience are there just as onlookers and not part of the debate.

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