Councillor claims debate rules will hit free speech
A battle over free speech has set Belfast City councillors at loggerheads - with a loyalist councillor claiming it would hinder her ability to criticise Islam.
Independent councillor Jolene Bunting claims new debate rules in the council will restrict freedom of speech.
"We are not going to be able to speak out about problematic members of society in Belfast," Ms Bunting told councillors at City Hall on Wednesday.
City Hall was debating a Sinn Fein proposal to ban councillors from using "offensive expressions in reference to any person or section of society".
"We are not going to be able to say very much in this council chamber," Ms Bunting said.
"It (the proposal) infringes our human rights and freedom of expression."
The independent unionist, who recently hit the headlines over links to the controversial Britain First group, added: "We must be able to speak our minds, and we must be able to stand up for our constituents.
"If our constituents have an issue, they must be able to raise the issue with us, to raise it in this council chamber."
She also raised the issue of Islam as an example of the kind of topic councillors would be banned from discussing.
"Do we have to wait until people are dying on our streets until people actually speak about Islam, before we speak about the Koran, and what it says in it?" she asked.
But last night Green Party councillor Georgina Milne slammed her remarks, saying: "I was astounded that during this debate, independent councillor Bunting announced her feelings on 'problematic' people in society with special reference to those who follow the Muslim faith.
"Councillor Bunting could have made any number of thoughtful points on freedom of speech and freedom of expression but instead, she chose to attack an entire religion.
"Ironically, she highlighted why, exactly, the protections she argued against are required.
"From my perspective, free speech is a critical component of democracy, but hate speech is not."
Last night Ms Bunting stood over her statements, insisting she would not be silenced, and would continue to speak out about controversial issues - including Islam.
"I'm been getting a lot of hate from some other councillors - but they're not going to silence me," she said.
"They won't prevent me from speaking out. I'm happy to justify everything I said."
The controversial motion was carried, despite some members feeling the wording was open to legal challenge.
Ulster Unionist councillor Jeff Dudgeon expressed concern the plan could conflict with Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees freedom of expression.