THE council is attempting to stifle free speech by threatening campaigners with prosecution for breaking a century-old bylaw, it is claimed.

The Socialist Party has for many years regularly campaigned in Walthamstow town square on a number of different issues, including privatisation, cuts to services, foreign policy and health.

The group, along with numerous organisations, regularly sets up tables in order to display leaflets and other materials and have, until now, been rarely bothered by the authorities.

But in recent weeks council enforcement officers have begun threatening them with fines.

On January 23 Socialist Party member Sarah Sachs-Eldrige was among a group of protesters asking shoppers to sign a petition calling for an enquiry into the council’s long-term mismanagement of finances.

She said: “A council officer came up and told us we were committing a crime. He was not very calm - he was aggressive and right in our face.”

Ms Sachs-Eldrige has since been sent a letter from the authority saying it is an offence to set up a stall in the town square without permission, under a 1906 bylaw.

The letter says: “Should you be seen in this location either conducting or being associated with this type of activity without permission you will be liable to prosecution.”

The maximum fine a court can impose for breaking the law is £500.

Ms Sachs-Eldrige said: “It is clear the council are using their ‘zero tolerance’ of environmental crime as a catch-all for stifling debate - and indeed any vibrant community life in the borough.

“The Independent Panel Report found the council undemocratic and lacking transparency and is in fact a vindication of the campaigns of the Socialist Party, the trade unions and others in the borough against privatisation.

“What are the council afraid of? Is it because we also petition for a public inquiry into their activities?”

Campaigners met at the Rose & Crown pub, in Hoe Street, on Thursday, and have agreed to stage a “day of action” in protest at the council's actions. The event called Campaign 2 Campaign will be held in High Street, near the town square, on March 6 from noon.

Campaigners are calling on residents to set up stalls, and bring banners and megaphones to demand the right to protest.

The Guardian is awaiting a response from the council.

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