Opportunity missed in the High Court on the free speech of public servants

The High Court has refused to hear an appeal from Bernard Gaynor, who was terminated from the Army Reserves for his controversial public views, leaving public servants in an invidious position. Can they be fired for expressing their political opinion? Maybe.

Before the High Court in August, distinguished barrister Jeremy Kirk SC addressed the elephant in the room. “No doubt there are some interesting issues over the horizon here,” he said, “interesting issues about social media and members of the public service and so forth, but this is a really extreme case.”

The extreme case was this: Army reservist Bernard Gaynor had commenced legal proceedings after having his commission terminated for publicly expressing homophobic and Islamophobic views. He won in the Federal Court on free speech grounds, but lost in the Full Federal Court. Following Kirk’s suggestion (he appeared for the Defence Force), the High Court elected not to hear the appeal.

For all public servants, the High Court’s failure to review the case is a great pity. While those “interesting issues” linger over the horizon, the ability of APS employees to speak their mind on political matters out-of-hours remains uncertain. With the Australian Public Service Commission continuing a crackdown on social media usage by public servants, this is no mere legal nicety but a pressing issue of public importance.

Public servants and free speech

Public servants are equal members of the Australian community and, ordinarily, enjoy the same rights and freedoms as any other citizen. However, the government has long sought to regulate the political expression of its employees – in 1902 a regulation was passed forbidding public servants from making any political comment. While the law has long since changed, the APS Code of Conduct is still regularly invoked against public servants who express disagreement with prevailing policy.

The real difficulty in this context is striking the right balance. Few would argue that public servants have an unrestrained right to criticise government policy. In the GaynorHigh Court hearing, judge Patrick Keane posed a hypothetical: “If a minister of the Crown … were to make comments disparaging of the government policy and the Governor-General, on the advice of the Prime Minister, were to terminate the commission”, would that be unconstitutional?

The answer is obviously no, and similarly a department head could hardly use the constitution as a shield against dismissal for publicly criticising his or her minister. But when a departmental receptionist expresses their views at home and out-of-hours, the pertinent considerations are entirely different. In Gaynor, the appellant was not in uniform, not on duty and not an active member of the Reserves.

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John Wilson is managing legal director at Bradley Allen Love and acted for the public servant plaintiff in Bennett. He acknowledges the assistance of his colleague Kieran Pender in the preparation of this article. For more information about this case, please contact us.

Article first published in the Mandarin.