LEWES DISTRICT COUNCIL
REPRODUCED SIMILAR FACT ALLEGATIONS - Re: SUSSEX POLICE - See contacts at foot of page.
Once upon a time there was a local council that decided to spend lots of public money on a hopeless and unpopular cause.
If this wasn't bad enough, they also decided to use the powers of the police to try and silence opposition to their plans.
This is the story of what happened to one of the many thousands of people who stood up and said "Oi! Lewes District Council! No!"
Events kick off at the end of November 2005 when I produced two campaign posters to accompany a petition being presented to Lewes District Council's meeting on 7 December 2005. The purpose of this petition was to ask members of the Council (lead by Councillor Ann de Vecchi) to reconsider their Cabinet members' decision to challenge the Falmer Stadium decision in the High Court. Following this meeting and, as with all examples of design work/political artwork and other items of lampoonery and satire, a copy of this poster was put in my online Gallery. Several unexciting weeks later the story begins ...
13 January 2006 - I received an email from Sussex Police telling me that they'd received "a complaint from Lewes District Council" and as a result, asked me to remove one of the posters in the gallery (image reprinted below). I politely declined their request because I considered LDC's complaint unfounded and their use of police powers to silence legitimate opposition unacceptable. I also pointed out that, in the 6 weeks since the poster had originally been produced, nobody from Lewes District Council had contacted me to complain or otherwise comment about the poster. A chance that was available to them on 7 December and 12 January when I was attending their meetings in my role as a press photographer.
The "offending" poster. Allegedly.
2 February 2006 - Another email from Sussex Police which informed me that they'd "received a formal allegation under the Protection From Harassment Act 1997" and that they "may have to interview you" - in other words arrest me. They would, however, be passing the matter onto the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and would contact me on 23 February 2006. I replied by asking who I was alleged to have harassed and when - i.e. who made the complaint - but the only response to this particular question has been a resounding silence.
23 February 2006 - Sussex Police emailed me to say that the CPS considered that there "may be a case to answer" and that they now needed to take further advice before pursuing their investigation.
2 March 2006 - Another email from Sussex Police who tell me that "The allegation was one of harassment contrary to section 2 of the Protection from Harassment Act based on the publication of the Wanted2 poster". But from this point on, the plot thickens rapidly since I am also told that "The poster was on your website and also in NorthStandChat (the well-known Albion fans' forum) for which you are a moderator and have a particular responsibility as to content. Then follows a positive compendium of quotes taken out of context which shows that the Police have monitored all my activities (and those of fellow members) on North Stand Chat in great detail and that I have, apparently "tolerated" any messages that have the temerity to suggest that the fragrant Ms de Vecchi is not a living saint. That I do not have responsibility for the content of North Stand Chat nor sole responsibility for moderating it is a fact that seems to have been conveniently ignored - as has the risk of attempting to build flimsy cases from quotes taken out of context!
Having temporarily moved the image in question to another part of the site while I took legal advice and considered the consequences of standing by my principles, the police and LDC were under the impression that the posters were "no longer in circulation". Thus their lengthy email concluded with the news that "In the light of the removal of that particular poster LDC felt that at this time, they would not press for further investigation. However, they reserved the right to do so should there be a repetition".
An "inoffensive" poster
I was surprised to discover that Lewes District Council seem to have taken over from the CPS in determining who should be prosecuted, or not, but sent a brief reply to this rather staggering email by, confirming that the picture certainly WAS in circulation.
2, 3 & 4 March - the story covered by the Brighton Argus, BBC South and South East News and the Sussex Express. Comments from the Police and Lewes District Council ranged from "no comment", "no comment since this is a police matter" and confirmation that the Police had contacted me, respectively. Councillor Ann de Vecchi told the Sussex Express that it was "not her who made the complaint and she declined to say who did."
16 March 2005 - Having had no response to my email and still being unaware of who had made the original complaint (the Protection from Harassment Act is designed to protect individuals, not local councils!) or whether the investigation was ongoing, I invited the police to confirm that no further action would be taken against me since I considered it quite unreasonable to be kept in ignorance of what was going on given the seriousness of the allegations.
Later that day I received a reply from Sussex Police telling me that they couldn't "confirm that no action will be taken against you as the investigation is still live" and had now been passed over to the CID.
So I now await Inspector Knacker's knock at the door. And why? Because "someone" at the District Council thought it was appropriate to use the police to help them squash legitimate opposition to an exceedingly unpopular political decision - and presumably that'll be the same remarkably reticent "someone" who clearly thought this course of action would be enough of a frightener so hadn't bargained for any alternative consequences!
This issue has now become a point of principle and I intend to stand by my principles and my reason for taking this stand is quite straightforward. The poster in question was produced as part of a political campaign. We have a long tradition in this country of lampooning politicians and anyone who is elected to represent the people must accept that they may face criticism from time to time. Nobody likes to be criticised but there are appropriate ways to deal with it. However, inviting the police to become the poodles in Lewes District Council's parlour isn't one of them. And most importantly, if Lewes District Council are allowed to get away with this insidious trick then whose just cause will be the next to be silenced?
Following John Prescott's announcement, Lewes District Council took legal advice on whether they should challenge the stadium permission in the High Court on the grounds that they "...were sure that a number of important planning issues have been overlooked, or not properly considered by Mr Prescott in making his decision". So on 24 November 2005, eight members of Lewes District Council's Cabinet met, behind closed doors, to approve this course of action and the allocation of £65,000 towards the cost.
When news of this decision was received much opposition was voiced but neither the Leader of the Council, Ann de Vecchi, nor any other representative from Lewes District Council were prepared to discuss their action and other councillors were actively "discouraged" from discussing the matter directly with residents of their respective wards. Despite requests from local people, the Council refused to put the matter on the agenda of the next meeting of the full Council on 7 December 2005. However, if a petition could be presented to that meeting then councillors would get to hear the views of the people and a campaign was started immediately in this respect. As part of that campaign posters were commissioned and I designed and produced two of them:
A petition of over 5000 signatures was produced to the Council meeting on 7 December but the Liberal Democrat controlled Council refused to reconsider their decision to go for a Judicial Review despite hearing evidence that, not only was their action unsupported by so many, but that the Council's estimated costs were woefully inadequate. Further requests for reconsideration were made to the Council's next Cabinet meeting on 11 January 2006 but of listening to reasoned opposition there was none! So as the District Council took their ball away the campaigners retired, deeply disappointed but knowing that they'd put their all into fighting a just cause.
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