Councillor broke rules by using ‘obscene language’ on Facebook

A Devon councillor has been found guilty of breaking conduct rules by swearing on Facebook.

Edward Oldfield www.devonlive.com

An investigation was carried out by Torbay Council after a complaint by a member of the public about “obscene language” in public posts made by Jack Dart, a councillor for Ellacombe in Torquay.

They included a description of the former leader of the UK Independence Party Nigel Farage as a w***er, and using the phrase “F**k Brexit & F**k Boris” – a reference to the prime minister Boris Johnson.

Cllr Dart also described the Government as w*****s and Brexit as a “f***ing disaster”.

Expressing support for Joe Biden in the US presidential election, Cllr Dart described former President Trump as a “f***ing moron” who had put people’s lives at risk and had been “s**t for jobs”.

The 26-year-old Liberal Democrat is a co-founder of Inspire EU, a youth-led group which campaigned for the UK to remain in the European Union.

In November, Cllr Dart published a post on Facebook explaining his use of swear words, saying: “A few people have messaged me to express upset at my language. It’s how I express myself, so I’m afraid it’ll continue long into the future.”

He added: “For those who are here regardless, I have a message for you! F**K TRUMP. BIDEN 2020! Turn the whole f***ing place blue!”

The words were spelled out in full in Cllr Dart’s posts, but letters have been replaced with asterisks in this report as some people may find them offensive.

Torbay Council’s monitoring officer carried out an investigation following a complaint in December by Torquay resident Drew Taylor.

Mr Taylor provided screenshots of the messages he said used obscene language.

The monitoring officer decided that Cllr Dart’s conduct breached the members code of conduct as it “fell short of the high standards” expected from councillors.

The code sets out how councillors’ behaviour should avoid bringing their office or the council into disrepute.

The officer recommended Cllr Dart deleted the Facebook posts, stopped using “obscene language” on social media, wrote a letter of apology, and attended a meeting to give an assurance he was aware of the requirements of the code of conduct.

The councillor’s Facebook page, which has the title “JACK DART LIBERAL DEMOCRAT COUNCILLOR – CO-FOUNDER INSPIRE EU”, has more than 28,000 likes and more than 33,000 followers.

The councillor, who works in social media marketing and is studying for a law degree, said he would stop using swear words on social media, but did not plan to take any further action.

Jack Dart, councillor for Ellacombe in Torquay, on Torbay Council

Jack Dart, councillor for Ellacombe in Torquay, on Torbay Council (Image: Jack Dart/Facebook)

He said he had been unaware before being contacted by the Local Democracy Reporting Service that he had been found in breach of the code of conduct, but said he may have missed an email due to ongoing connection problems with the iPad issued to councillors for official communications.

He said he used strong language to connect with the younger generation, and it was not unusual on social media to see swear words. He had used them on social media for several years, but had moderated his language since becoming a councillor at the age of 24 in 2019.

He said he felt it was important as a young councillor to connect with younger voters using language they used, and he did not want to become a ‘robotic’ politician. He said he did not intend to offend anyone, but accepted swear words might upset some people.

The councillor said he worked hard to represent his constituents and always behaved respectfully in meetings, but the context of social media was different and swearing was more acceptable.

He said: “If people are genuinely upset by the language I am using, I am happy to reduce the swearing on my Facebook page. It is not something I want to do, but if people are upset about it, I will.”

He added: “If people don’t want me to swear on social media, and the council says I have absolutely got to stop, I will have to stop. But that is not who I am. I am serious when I want to be serious, jokey when I want to be, and swear when I feel like it. I would like to keep on, but if people don’t like it, then I will have to stop.”

He said he was aware of numerous complaints made against him, many from political opponents unhappy with his high profile pro-EU national campaigning through his Facebook page, which regularly reached around one million people each month.

Cllr Dart said he had worked hard to represent young people, and had spent two years on a campaign to persuade them to sign up to the electoral register so they could vote.

Mr Taylor, 52, of Torre, Torquay, said he complained about Cllr Dart’s posts because he was concerned about the effect of what he described as the “vile” and “inflammatory” language. He said he considered it gave the wrong impression to young people about what was acceptable in political debate.

The council’s monitoring officer said it was clear that Cllr Dart was acting as a councillor on his Facebook page, and it was reasonable for the public to believe that he made the comments in his “official capacity”.

Mr Taylor was told that Cllr Dart was expected to “promote and support high standards of conduct when serving in his public post.”

The officer concluded that in respect of the allegations about use of obscene language, the councillor’s conduct “fell short of the high standards expected of those elected to represent the residents of Torbay.”

The letter from the officer to Mr Taylor, dated February 1, 2021, reporting the outcome of his complaint, said Cllr Dart would be asked to remove the posts and stop using obscene language on social media where he could be identified as a councillor. He would be asked to write a letter of apology to Mr Taylor and meet the monitoring officer to ensure he was aware of the code of conduct.

Mr Taylor said: “He has been using quite inflammatory and defamatory language, and some of his comments about other politicians were just absolutely vile.

“He is giving the younger generation the impression this is what politics is like, and that is not acceptable. That is why I complained, I felt he was very much delivering the wrong impression.”

After the interview with the Local Democracy Reporting Service, Cllr Dart published a post on Facebook about the disciplinary action on Tuesday, March 16, saying the council had found him guilty of breaking the members code of conduct for swearing on social media.

He wrote: “I have always been very vocal on social media, as you know, and part of my style involves being strong with my wording, often using swear words to show emotion when connecting with readers. (As you know, emotion is hard to portray online).

“Swearing is a touchy subject in politics, because if it can offend someone, it’s typically not allowed. Sadly, I disagree with the categorisation of swearing, and that is very clearly at odds with the views of political organisations, including ones I am a member of.”

Cllr Dart said he would stop using swear words on social media for the remaining two years of his term of office, but would not comply with the other recommendations from the monitoring officer.

He said he would not write a letter of apology as he was not sorry for swearing, he would not delete posts as he had published tens of thousands during the five years his Facebook page had been running, many with swear words, and he did not need to meet the monitoring officer about the code of conduct as he had read it was aware of the standards expected.

He added: “Anyone who knows me and has attended council meetings will know I am courteous, professional, and conduct myself well and always treat members of the public and council colleagues with respect.

“Social media is a very different place to face-to-face meetings, and official business. It’s a forum for lively debate and it’s a place where, almost every month, I reach over 1M people. I connect with people and offer my views and opinions from the perspective of a young person. I believe those who follow me do so because they appreciate how I express my views, and the style I do it in.”

Later that day he posted that he had been surprised and overwhelmed by messages of support. The next day he published a post including the phrase “B******S TO BREXIT!”.

On Saturday Cllr Dart published a link to a news story headlined “Love the flag ‘or move to another country’, Conservative MP says”, and commented: “I believe they call this fascism. F**k off. (I’ve decided fascism deserves swear words)”.

The words were spelled out in full in Cllr Dart’s posts, but letters have been replaced with asterisks in this report as some people may find them offensive.

A Torbay Council spokesperson said: “A complaint was received alleging that Cllr Dart had breached the members code of conduct by using obscene language in Facebook posts.

“The matter was investigated by the council’s monitoring officer in accordance with the local protocol for breaches of the members code of conduct.

“In respect of the allegation, the monitoring officer concluded that Cllr Dart’s behaviour fell short of the high standards expected of those elected to represent the residents of Torbay, and recommended that he remove the posts and refrain from using such language in the future.”