ollycromwell

Restraining order won't silence citizen journalist

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Sometimes some simple tweets can spell a world of trouble.

John Kerlen was sentenced last week to a community service order and five-year restraining order after sending “grossly offensive malicious communications.” The communications in question were a pair of tweets referencing a council member from London suburb Bexley, one of which used a four-letter curse word beginning with the letter “c.”

Yet, the case was about much more than a simple profanity for Kerlen, a 38-year-old IT support worker and citizen journalist. He’s been blogging the council’s activities over the last couple of years in a personal attempt to hold the elected officials accountable.

The incident prompted a debate over free speech, with Kerlen claiming his freedom of speech had been restricted as a result of his bail conditions. (The sentencing, which could have included six months in prison, played out on Twitter, with Kerlen himself tweeting from the dock and others in attendance using the #FreeTheBexleyOne hashtag.)

When Kerlen was granted bail in December, it was subject to several conditions, such as being unable to blog or tweet about the council as a whole. Those conditions were lifted with his sentencing.

While he’ll be unable to contact or discuss one particular council member under the terms of his restraining order, Kerlen fully intends to continue where he left off. There is one small roadblock in his way, however.

“The only issue I have with the restraining order is that it prevents me from attending council meetings as, naturally, the individual I was prohibited from contacting will be there,” Kerlen told the Daily Dot.

“Quite an affront to democracy, but I'm hoping that will be resolved if and when my appeal is upheld.”

He’s not the only blogger who’s concerned with Bexley Council. Malcolm Knight of Bexley is Bonkers is also on board in helping expose what Kerlen calls “the rank hypocrisy, corruption, and unaccountable behaviour by the council.”

The swamp of politics can be murky. The expenses scandal, which blighted members of parliament in the U.K., was among the most notable political scandals in recent years, though local politics are not immune from morally questionable hijinks either. Citizen journalists like Kerlen and Knight want to make the public aware of all pertinent council-related news in order to hold those elected officials accountable.

Kerlen, who blogs under the pseudonym Olly Cromwell, said Bexley council members are not used to public scrutiny. (He added it’s rare to see more than 10 people in the public gallery, with most of those interested parties connected with himself or Knight). He claimed that not enough people attend council meetings or realize what’s happening.

“I believe it is very important that people in general get involved in local politics; they'd be pretty surprised at what goes on behind the scenes,” Kerlen said. “If you could see the behaviour of councillors and how undemocratic it is in Bexley you'd soon get as angry as I am.

“I think using the Internet to spread the word is very important, it opens up the behaviour of councils in general to a greater audience and as such may lead to councils becoming more accountable for their actions.”

Obviously, Kerlen feels little in the way of regret for his two offensive tweets. In fact, shortly after the sentencing, he tweeted: “Working for free at least the c----s can't tax me ;o)”

Kerlen hopes that his case will inspire others to get involved in local politics. He advises his readers to “question everything,” attend meetings, and to start a blog or website, with a goal of putting together a team of citizen journalists to help share the workload.

As far as his own case goes, Kerlen claimed he mostly received positive reactions from others, including those with political views opposed to his own, celebrities, and members of parliament. Although there were a number of people who disagree with his actions and other activity on his blog, he stated that the support more than countered the criticism.

“The Internet has played a big part in that, Twitter especially,” he said. “Without Twitter I don't think my case would have received the coverage it had.

Photo via Twitter