The Eastern Daily Press has criticised Breckland Council for refusing a councillor entry to a committee meeting and the chance to vote on the fate of a controversial housing scheme because he had expressed strong opposition to the plans in the paper.
Lawyers ruled that councillor Michael Fanthorpe was in danger of breaking impartiality guidelines by telling the paper he would fight "tooth and nail" against the planning applications.
Fanthorpe, who said he was reflecting the views of angry locals, was advised to declare an interest and leave before the debate began. Legal advisors sent an email to all Breckland councillors, warning them about appearing biased before planning meetings, and said the councillor had overstepped the mark.
EDP assistant editor Paul Durrant said: "For many years, reporters have picked up on agenda items and contacted councillors for their opinions on issues due to be debated in the council chamber and it seems inconceivable that expressing a view in advance could bar them from speaking or voting on the issue.
"It’s important that newspapers have the freedom to air stories in advance of meetings to get them firmly in the public domain and allow more informed reader opinion about what’s happening in their neck of the woods.
Councillors saying ‘no comment because we face being gagged’ clearly flies in the face of that principle."
Breckland district solicitor Mike Horn told the paper that councillors making decisions on planning applications had to go into debates with an "open mind".
He said: "This is not an issue of gagging councillors and it is certainly not saying they cannot speak in advance of meetings. But it is saying to them that they have to be careful what they say before the full debate is heard."