In Australia, government workers can now be fired for tweeting

If you’re an Australian and you happen to be thinking of applying for a government job, here’s a hot tip for you. Delete your Twitter and Facebook accounts immediately. Otherwise, you might fall victim to the temptation to tweet and that can get you fired according to that nation’s highest court. That’s what happened to a woman named Michaela Banerji.

So what was she tweeting that was so horrible? Child pornography? Threats of violence? Hate speech? Nope. She was expressing opinions about government immigration policy on an anonymous account. She was fired for that and the Australian Supreme Court has upheld the decision to terminate her. (The Guardian)

The high court has unanimously upheld a decision to sack public servant Michaela Banerji for anonymous social media posts that criticised the government’s immigration policy.

The court delivered its judgment in the landmark freedom of speech test case on Wednesday, upholding an appeal from the workers’ compensation agency Comcare which argued it was reasonable for the immigration department to sack Banerji.

The case has implications for two million federal, state and local public servants, as the court declined to use the constitutional implied freedom of communication to rule the sacking was unreasonable.

So Banerji was tweeting about government policy under a pseudonym, but someone unmasked her and it was brought to the attention of her superiors. There’s a rule for government workers which says that “public servants must be apolitical at all times” and she was sacked under that rule.

Banerji appealed her dismissal and initially won a worker’s compensation case when the administrative appeals tribunal found her firing to be unreasonable under the “implied freedom of communication” in the Australian constitution. But the Supreme Court obviously disagreed and overturned that finding.

The problem for Banerji and other public servants is that there is no specific freedom of speech in their constitution. The closest they come is the “implied freedom of communication” I mentioned above. (You can read an explanation of how that’s derived at the Australian Parliament’s website.) But since that right is only “implied,” it’s not a secure thing and the court has just demonstrated how tenuous that freedom actually is.

This should serve as a cautionary tale for all of you Americans. Be grateful that you have the First Amendment and guard those freedoms with all your might. Not everyone has them, and without such protections, the government can do pretty much anything it wants to you.