Friday 9 August 2019

#dismissed: High Court upholds dismissal of public servant for anonymous tweets critical of government

In a landmark case on whether a public servant's use of social media can be a valid reason for terminating their employment, the High Court has unanimously upheld restrictions on a public servant's ability to make public comment where it may damage the integrity and good reputation of the public service.

In doing so, the Court has emphasised the importance of an apolitical and professional public service that will faithfully implement accepted government policy, irrespective of employees' personal political beliefs.

In Comcare v Michaela Banerji [2019] HCA 23 (7 August 2019), a now former Department of Immigration employee Ms Michaela Banerji had an anonymous twitter account where she was highly critical of Government and Opposition immigration policies, members of Parliament and the Department of Immigration.  After an investigation uncovered her identity, she was dismissed from her role for inappropriately using social media in contravention of the Public Service Act 1999 (Cth) (PS Act), the Australian Public Service (APS) Code of Conduct and APS Values.

Ms Banerji argued that the PS Act and APS Code of Conduct imposed an unjustified burden on the implied freedom of political communication under the Constitution.

The Court unanimously rejected this argument, emphasising that the implied freedom of political communication is not a personal right to free speech.  The Court held that the restrictions placed on political communication by public servants under the PS Act were consistent with the constitutionally prescribed system of representative and responsible government, namely the maintenance and protection an apolitical public service.

However, the Court emphasised that any action taken in response to a breach of the PS Act or APS Code of Conduct must be proportionate to the nature and gravity of the employee's misconduct.  Depending on the circumstances, this may range from a simple reprimand to the termination of a person's employment.  In responding to a potential breach, an employer must act reasonably, provide procedural fairness and take into account the personal circumstances of the employee.

A summary of the Court's decision can be found here.

VGSO's Workplace Relations and Occupational Safety Branch has significant expertise and experience in advising employers on potential breaches of the Code of Conduct for Victorian Public Sector Employees and Victorian Public Sector Values.  We also run training programs for human resources professionals in the public sector, including on the use of social media in the workplace. 

VGSO's Constitution and Advice Team also has significant experience and expertise in dealing with the intersection between the implied freedom of political communication and state laws, including decision-making under those laws.

If you work in the public sector and require further information please contact us:

Workplace Relations team

Frances Anderson
Assistant Victorian Government Solicitor

Ronan O'Donnell
Solicitor, Workplace Relations and Occupational Safety

Constitution and Advice team

Alison O'Brien
Assistant Victorian Government Solicitor

Jessica Cleaver
Managing Principal Solicitor, Constitution and Advice team

Maya Narayan
Principal Solicitor, Constitution and Advice team

This blog was prepared with the assistance of Margie Brown, Law Graduate.