26 Apr 2012

Letter in Brent Times: Leaflet Policy is Danger to Free Speech

Transcript of letter in Kilburn Times, 26 April 2012 edition (p. 16):

"Leaflets: Policy is danger to free speech"

Thank you for exposing the audacity of Brent Council’s latest proposal to constrain free speech on our streets (‘Leaflets fee set to hit protest groups’, front page, and ‘Is new leaflet control really just about cutting litter?’ editorial, Brent Times, 19 April).

The audacity of the proposal being tabled at the Executive, “Control of Distribution of Free Literature on Designated Land”, and the flimsiness of the environmental pretext given for it, does not conceal the danger to the principle and practice of free speech that it would pose.

My Green Party colleague, Martin Francis, has solicited a clarification from the Council that exemptions for the requirement to apply for a licence to leaflet would also apply to political literature of a non-party political sort. This more inclusive interpretation, though welcome, is hardly cause for celebration. The proposal itself would have us fundamentally alter the presumption of free speech which we enjoy in this country.

Firstly, there should be no question that a potential leafleter need seek permission from the Council before distributing literature not covered by the exemptions, such as that promoting a local business or a cultural event.

We already have sufficient legal apparatus to cover cases either where literature is inciting hatred or where trespass has occurred or in order to combat littering.

Second, there should be no question that a potential leafleter should have been expected to anticipate such a requirement, if and when operative, either upon payment of a licence application fee or on pain of penalty otherwise.

Third, the principle and practice of free speech, as enjoined in the publication and distribution of literature, is ordinarily of no material business to the Council, and certainly not on some relatively inconsequential basis as the prevention of litter.

Moreover, the criteria given for potential application of such licensing regimes are neither physically proximate, in the case of streets far from Wembley Stadium, nor clearly confined to the duration of the Games and the Games alone.

This potential threat of interference to the ordinary and everyday business of Brent residents and local business people, and the very fact that the Council would even consider such action, betrays yet again the contempt with which they must hold us.

The Council is demonstrating, in its half-baked clarifications and lack of anticipation of them, not only gross incompetence; but, moreover, ill-motivation in seeking to legislate against something which is a fundamental democratic entitlement.

Not content with doublespeak over the harm they have perpetrated over library closures, they now wish to audit and censor what we would read, for a fee, of course.

One is left incredulous at the incompetence and maliciousness of this administration, which apparently knows no bounds.

Shahrar Ali
Green Party London Assembly candidate for Brent and Harrow

UPDATE: Since this letter was submitted, the Executive approved the proposal. Coverage by Martin Francis Here and Here. Brent Times story Here.

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