Restricting one’s speech curbs all of us

By Rajan Venkataraman, a Director of Civil Liberties Australia

Civil Liberties Australia is concerned by the growing trend for corporations, public services and other organisations to impose restrictions on the freedom of employees to express themselves and speak out about matters that concern them, even on issues that have nothing to do with their employment.

The trend is for organisations to impose restrictions in the name of their “social media policy” or to “protect their brand image”.

CLA believes all Australians have a right to free speech and their right to express their opinions openly.

Examples of the problem restrictions include:

  • federal public servant Michaela Banerji was sacked for criticising the government’s policies on asylum seekers. The issue is now before the High Court.
  • An employee of Cricket Australia, Angela Williamson, was sacked for criticising the Tasmanian Government’s policies on abortion. A settlement
  • A sports reporter for SBS, Scott McIntyre, was sacked for comments he made on Twitter about ANZAC Day. Another settlement

The problem with settlements – inevitably involving confidentiality clauses – is that no-one becomes any the wiser as to where lie the boundaries on public comment.

These three are particularly egregious cases, but we are equally concerned about the thousands of people who every day decide to keep silent. In fear of  losing their jobs, they choose not to express themselves on social media, or attend public forums, or write letters to the editor of their local newspapers or write to ministers or their local MPs about matters that concern them. They are rendered speechless by their organisation’s anti-free speech policies.

Is the freedom of speech absolute?

No, it’s not absolute. International and domestic law says that speech may be restricted to the extent necessary to protect the rights of others. For this reason, we have laws that apply to all Australians on such things as defamation, misleading advertising, vilification and incitement to violence.

But over and above these laws companies, government departments and other organisations impose highly restrictive rules about what their workers may say.

What if people freely agree to abide by such policies as part of the terms of employment? CLA believes such policies are not acceptable for two reasons.

  • Firstly, the positions of the employee and the employer are not equal: so such restrictive policies cannot be freely agreed to.

With hundreds of thousands of jobs in the public and private sector now subject to such rules, a person who decides they wish to retain their freedom of expression will find their employment choices severely limited.

  • Secondly, the High Court of Australia has ruled that the Australian Constitution implicitly guarantees freedom of political communication.

The High Court did so, not because freedom of expression is inherently an individual right, but because our entire democratic system and responsible government requires that the people may express themselves freely.

All Australians have a stake

In other words, any restriction on freedom of expression imposed by corporations, government departments and other organisations, hurts not just the individual employee, it undermines our entire democratic system, in effect all of us.

All Australians have a stake in free speech, not just employers and their workers.

The freedom of political communication established by the High Court would become a hollow right if it is undermined by restrictions on free speech in social media and news outlets by over-egged policies of private and public organisations.

Rajan Venkataraman is a former Australian public servant and diplomat who also served as a departmental adviser in a ministerial office in Parliament House. He has been a member of the Australian Film and Literature Board and is currently based in Tasmania where, among other things, he tutors adults in literacy and numeracy.

 

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