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Councillors face gag order on social media comments

WA’s local government authorities have started adopting a new social media and communications policy that seeks to censor councillors’ critical comments made in private conversations or emails.

The new policy, designed by the WA Local Government Association, warns councillors to be careful about their personal or private comments because they might unintentionally become public.

“Council member comments which become public and breach the Local Government (Rules of Conduct) Regulations 2007 may constitute a serious breach of the Local Government Act 1995 and may be referred for investigation,” the model policy says.

It warns councillors that their private communications should:

  • Avoid damage to the reputation of the local government.
  • Not reflect adversely on a decision of the council.
  • Not reflect adversely on the character or actions of another council member or employee.
  • Maintain a respectful and positive tone and not use offensive or objectionable expressions in reference to any council member, employee or community member.

WALGA developed the policy in October and councils have quickly started adopting it.

“Personal communications and statements made privately, in conversation, written, recorded emailed, texted or posted in personal social media have the potential to be made public, whether intended or not,” the policy says.

“On the basis that personal or private communications may be shared or become public at some point in the future, council members should ensure that their personal or private communi-cations do not breach the requirements of this policy, the Code of Conduct and the Local Government (Rules of Conduct) Regulations 2007.”

WALGA president Lynne Craigie said its communications policy sought to assist its members in understanding their communications responsibilities and many of the requirements were already part of the Local Government Act and Rules of Conduct.

“Many cases being considered by the Local Government Standards Panel are based upon the misinterpretation of appropriate communications by elected members,” she said.

“The policy provides no intention to censor or restrict freedom of speech.”

Capel Shire councillor Michael Southwell, who has been taken to the local government standards panel by his chief executive and president for critical comments, was the only dissenting vote when the policy was adopted last month.

Cr Southwell told the council the policy was something the Stasi in East Germany would have been proud of during the 50s.

“I can’t understand why being elected to represent your community suddenly means you are deprived of the right to free speech,” Cr Southwell said on his Facebook page.

The warnings about social media are taken even further in a WALGA guidelines document for councillors which lists “risk factors” in what can be said publicly and privately.

“Publicly criticising the work, the administration, the council, council members, employees or contractors of your local government is almost always going to be seen as a breach of the Rules of Conduct,” it says.

“As a council member, people will assume that you have a high level of knowledge about what your local government does, and that you may have access to sensitive information.

“They will think that you know ‘what’s really going on’. Your comments have a strong capacity to affect your local government’s reputation.

“If you have serious concerns about the way in which your local government is being run or the behaviour of another council member or an employee, there are proper ways to report these. Posting on social media is not the answer.”

In a section on free speech, the document says: “The common law recognises an individual right to freedom of expression. For council members, this right is subject to limitations imposed by the rules of conduct.”

There are no similar limitations on elected members of either Federal or State governments.

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