SYDNEY – Australia’s High Court ruled in a landmark freedom of speech case that a former government employee who anonymously tweeted comments critical of the immigration department was lawfully fired.
Michaela Banerji was sacked by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection in 2013 for posting comments under the Twitter handle @LaLagale, which criticized the government’s border protection policies.
Her conduct was said to have breached the Australian Public Service Code of Conduct, which states that public service employees must uphold APS values and be apolitical and impartial.
Banerji took her case to an appeals court in 2018, which found her dismissal unlawful as it “trespassed on the implied freedom of political communication.”
But the federal government appealed against the decision and on Wednesday, the High Court said Banerji’s dismissal “did not impose an unjustified burden on the implied freedom of political communication, and the termination of the respondent’s employment with the Commonwealth was not unlawful,” according to the court document.
Banerji’s lawyer Allan Anforth told national broadcaster ABC that the “very disappointing” ruling would affect “any person that is employed under a Commonwealth statute of any description.”
“Why should public servants be carved out as people who should not be able to participate in the political process?” he said.
The case has implications for 2 million public servants in the country, the Community and Public Sector Union said on Wednesday.
“People working in Commonwealth agencies should be allowed normal rights as citizens rather than facing Orwellian censorship because of where they work,” CPSU National Secretary Nadine Flood said in a statement.
The statement added that in the years since Banerji’s case has been underway, “the Liberal Government’s approach to social media and the public service has become even more draconian, with a social media policy released in 2017 that meant that public servants could be disciplined or sacked for ‘liking’ someone else’s post or posting emojis.”
The union called on the Australian government to protect freedom of speech and “demonstrate that it prioritizes democratic rights, with a social media policy that reflects the real world.”