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Arrested for filming a public council meeting

Have Carmarthenshire Council and Dyfed Powys Police acted illiberally?

The blogger and campaigner Jacqui Thompson was last week arrested, handcuffed, marched to a police car, and then detained at a police station for two hours. All she had done was to film a public meeting of Carmarthenshire Council on her camera-phone.

One would expect that transparency of public council meetings would now be the norm, not a police matter. Indeed, in a letter dated 23 February 2011, the coalition government set out guidance for English councils on filming. Included in the guidance is the following statement:

There are recent stories about people being ejected from council meetings for blogging, tweeting or filming. This potentially is at odds with the fundamentals of democracy and I want to encourage all councils to take a welcoming approach to those who want to bring local news stories to a wider audience. The public should rightly expect that elected representatives who have put themselves up for public office be prepared for their decisions to be as transparent as possible and welcome a direct line of communication to their electorate. I do hope that you and your colleagues will do your utmost to maximise the transparency and openness of your council.

While it seems this guidance does not extend to Wales -- local government is a "devolved" matter -- it is clearly an articulation of good practice in a democracy. Indeed, one would hope that councils would not need such guidance.

But it appears Carmarthenshire Council is different. The following statements set out a narrative what happened that day when Jacqui Thompson was arrested and detained.

We can start with the council's general press statement about the incident:

Ms Thompson refused repeated requests to stop filming proceedings in the Chamber which is not allowed. She then refused repeated requests to leave the public gallery. The Chair was left with no other option other than to call the police to remove her from the gallery so that County Council business could proceed.

Jacqui Thompson:

Clearly my presence was noted when I entered the Public Gallery and when the row commenced over the Day Club, I started filming with my phone, (not terribly well I know but better than nothing) I was asked to leave by the Chairman and [Chief Executive] Mark James, I said that I was not doing anything wrong, it is not against the law nor even in their standing orders (rules for meetings), neither was I disturbing the meeting in any shape or form.

Alexander Smith of the Carmarthen Journal:

Councillor Pam Palmer halted the meeting part-way through when she spotted a member of the public had a camera-phone.

Recognising the blogger, who has been in trouble for filming meetings before, chief executive Mark James said: "Mrs Thompson, you have been asked time and time again not to film."

Mrs Thompson said she was doing nothing wrong, to which Mr James replied: "I hope you've got a good picture for your website.

"Clearly Mrs Thompson doesn't want to put the camera down.

"Can we ask for the police to come and remove her from the chamber?"

Chairman Ivor Jackson said: "I am going to suspend the meeting to remove that lady from the chamber."

The meeting then broke up with the councillors loudly complaining and talking among themselves.

The footage of the council meeting in the minutes up to the adjournment is now on YouTube.

And so back to Jacqui Thompson:

As I didn't leave, Mr James and the Chair called the police and then adjourned the meeting. . . it only took ten minutes today for two police cars and four police officers to appear in the Gallery.

I asked the council on what legal basis they thought filming of public meetings was not allowed:

The law requires the Council to allow public access to its meetings, but it does not require Council to allow the public to film them. There is no Welsh Government Assembly guidance requiring this and in fact they also do not allow individual members of the public to record their proceedings. Neither does Parliament. As owner of the building the Council is entitled to regulate what happens on their premises.

I also asked the council on what legal basis she was asked to leave the public gallery:

The Council's standing orders provide that if a meetings is being disrupted by a person in the public gallery, the Chair should ask for that person to be removed. If he or she refuses to leave when requested, the Chair can adjourn the meeting to enable this to happen and for order to be restored.

The police were called. They later issued this formal police statement:

At approximately 10:20 on the 8th of June 2011 officers were asked to attend at County Hall, Carmarthen to deal with an incident involving a woman in the public gallery. On arrival, officers spoke to a 49 year old woman but she refused to co-operate and she was then arrested to prevent a further breach of the peace. She was later released with no further action.

Note to editor

Police responded to the call as filming in the public gallery is prohibited under council regulations (as reported by the Council.)

However, the council Standing Orders (not regulations) do not prohibit filming. Instead rule 22.1 provides:

Removal of member of the public

If a member of the public interrupts proceedings, the Chair will warn the person concerned. If they continue to interrupt, the Chair will order their removal from the meeting room.

Interruptions may lead to the removal of a member of the public, but not photography or filming -- and there is no evidence that Jacqui Thompson was being disruptive. The "Note to Editor" rather suggests that either the council or the police (or both) misdirected themselves as to the meaning and legal force of the Standing Orders.

I asked the council whether the chair asked the police to arrest Ms Thompson or whether it was left as a matter for the police:

The person in the gallery had been asked to stop filming and to leave the gallery on a previous occasion. When an officer asked her to do this she accused that officer of assaulting her. That has been investigated by the Police and the officer completely exonerated. Because of this background there was no alternative but to ask the Police to deal with the person concerned. The way in which the police officers dealt with the matter was entirely a matter for them.

Jacqui Thompson:

I tried to argue my point but was then arrested in the Public Gallery for 'breaching the peace'.

From the Blackstone's Police Operational Handbook 2011:

Meaning of breach of the peace

A breach of the peace may occur where harm is done or is likely to be done to a person, or to their property in their presence, or they are in fear of being harmed through assault, affray, riot, or other disturbance (R v Howell [1982] QB 416, QBD).

I asked the council if it supported the decision to have Jacqui Thompson arrested:

The Council have had no influence over whether Mrs Thompson was arrested or not and no view on the fact that she was arrested. Their only reason for calling the Police was to restore order in the Council chamber to enable the democratic process to proceed.

I asked the police in what possible way was filming a public council meeting a breach of the peace? Dyfed Powys Police are hoping to provide an answer on this later this week (I asked on Friday). However, one would have thought they would have known the answer to this before they went and arrested someone.

I also asked the Dyfed Powys Police to confirm that filming a public council meeting was not actually an arrestable offence. Again, Dyfed Powys Police are hoping to provide an answer to this later this week. And again, one would have expected Dyfed Powys Police to be able to answer this one straightaway. Any police force should know its powers of arrest.

Jacqui Thompson:

I was taken outside the door, handcuffed, searched, my phone taken and marched out to the waiting police cars.

Alexander Smith of the Carmarthen Journal has blogged what happened next:

We can't have been on the steps longer than five minutes when four police officers led Mrs Thompson, in cuffs, round the side of the building, perhaps wanting to avoid the attention of the front steps?

They didn't see me coming, but I only managed to take one photo before the blonde officer [pictured, right] grabbed my arm and tried to take the camera. I wriggled free and explained I was from the Journal.

After showing my press pass I asked them what the arrest was for. One of the male officers replied: "That's none of your business."

Jacqui Thompson:

I was then taken 30 miles to Llanelli police station where I remained handcuffed for another hour before being 'processed', and put in a cell for another two hours.

Jacqui Thompson had been ejected from the public council meeting. But why was she then taken to a police station and detained? And why was she then kept several hours at the police station?

Dyfed Powys Police were not able to answer my questions, but they hope to get back to me later this week.

According to Jacqui Thompson:

By this time I was very disorientated, worried about my young daughter who needed picking up from school, I was cold (the police had taken my jacket and shoes and socks) and distressed. Without a solicitor present, I was then threatened by three police officers who said that if I didn't sign an 'undertaking' not to film/record any more meetings I would be kept in overnight, I am not sure now whether they could even keep me that long. I was then, eventually, released.

So I asked the police why was she threatened with court if she did not sign an "undertaking": And what possible offence was the police threatening with charging her? Do the police realise that this is a free expression issue? Will the police now apologise to Ms Thompson?

Dyfed Powys Police do not currently have any answers to these questions, but they do hope to be able tell me later this week.

It appears to me that Ms Thompson was not in breach of any council Standing Order or committing (or threatening to commit) any breach of the peace. Accordingly, there seems to be no good basis whatsoever for her arrest. There is also no good reason why she was taken to a police station and required, on pain of further detention, to sign an undertaking.

In my view, Carmarthenshire Council and Dyfed Powys Police have simply acted in an altogether hapless, illiberal, and alarming manner. A person, surely, should not be arrested and detained just for filming a public council meeting, and a council should not be able to prevent someone from doing so in this manner. In my opinion, all the councillors, officials, and police officers involved in this sad sequence of events really should be ashamed of themselves.

 

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman