People posting “malignant”, “offensive” and “untrue” comments on Facebook about Uckfield town councillors could be named and shamed in the future.
The suggestion was made at a full Uckfield Town Council meeting as councillors discussed what to do about posts which were “completely untrue and impugned the character and integrity of Cllr Ian Smith and former Cllr Mick Harker” as detailed in a report from Uckfield Mayor Cllr Louise Eastwood.
Cllr Eastwood said in the report: “Such statements also referred to the way that the recent elections had been conducted and these allegations have been referred to the Returning Officer for investigation.”
The mayor continued: “Whilst Uckfield town Council accepts that social media is an ideal tool for communication it does not accept that users of social media should be entitled to make allegations without any foundation simply to hurt, ridicule and spread misinformation.
“Uckfield Town Council would expect all users to act responsibly when posting on social and other media.”
The vote of each councillor was recorded as they approved a statement which read:
“Uckfield Town Council emphasises that it finds those comments made completely unacceptable and has no wish to be associated with them in any way.
“Uckfield Town Council wishes to make it clear that such comments are unwelcome and unwarranted in any circumstances.
“Uckfield Town Council also emphasises that it has total confidence in the honesty and integrity of Cllr Ian Smith and former Cllr Mick Harker and acknowledges the considerable contribution that they have both made and continue to make for the Uckfield community.”
Earlier in the meeting former Cllr Mick Harker thanked the mayor and Cllr Sparks for raising the matter. He said there were lots of benefits from social media and an elected councillor had to accept they would come in for flack, but in the last period some of the comments and allegations made against Ian Smith and himself were “quite frankly outrageous”.
He said that a member of a group obtaining hundreds of emails as a result of a Freedom of Information request just to try and discover any potential misdemeanour was “going a bit far” for local politics.
This was especially so when one misdemeanour discovered, after receiving over 400 messages, was misinterpreted and broadcast widely as bribery and reported as such to the monitoring officer. No action was taken.
Mr Harker said this was to do with a charity he was involved with – nothing to do with him – yet the accusation was now in the public domain.
“This is the problem. Even if Facebook postings are removed because a moderator considers them inappropriate they have still been read and as such are in the public domain and can rightly be described and considered as “internet trolling”.
“This is a completely unacceptable and illegal action and if found guilty perpetrators can face two years in prison, so it is a serious offence. It is a behaviour that no councillor carrying out their elected responsibilities should be exposed to.
“The town council as a body needs to send a very clear message and distance itself away from such malignant behaviour.”
Cllr Paul Sparks echoed Mr Harker’s words. He had put forward his own motion about the same matter but withdrew it once councillors had voted on the wording put forward by Cllr Eastwood and amended by Cllr Duncan Bennett.
Cllr Sparks said comments that had appeared on Facebook were unacceptable and offensive. He added: “I think we have got to show our complete abhorrence towards those sort of comments.”
Council clerk Ashley Serpis said comments had been made about “election fixing” and there had been a number of other statements made about “members taking a back hander”.
Mr Serpis said that if unwarranted statements were made against councillors in the future it would be possible to name a person and say they were making untrue statements.
Cllr Chris Macve suggested taking action now to discourage anyone in the future. “If they think they can do it and get away with it the likelihood is they will continue.”
Mr Serpis said he did have a copy of a Facebook thread containing names in his office and offered to get it but Cllr Eastwood decided that the meeting should continue without interruption.
The only councillor to abstain during a vote in favour of the statement was Cllr Ian Smith.
Councillors present at the meeting were:
Mayor Cllr Louise Eastwood, Trust Independent, North Ward
Deputy Mayor Cllr Duncan Bennett, Trust Independent, New Town
Cllr Jacqueline Beckford, Liberal Democrat, Ridgewood
Cllr Mick Dean, Trust Independent, New Town
Cllr Keith Everett, Independent, Ridgewood
Cllr Helen Firth, Conservative, Central
Cllr Jackie Love, Trust Independent, North
Cllr Chris Macve, Trust Independent, North
Cllr Barry Mayhew, Liberal Democrat, New Town
Cllr Paul Meakin, Liberal Democrat, Central
Cllr Ian Smith, Independent, Ridgewood
Cllr Paul Sparks, Liberal Democrat, North
Cllr Diane Ward, Trust Independent, Central
Apologies were received from:
Cllr James Anderson, Trust Independent, North
Cllr Donna French, Trust Independent, North