Court rules against bureaucrat’s freedom to tweet

By Julian Bajkowski

Conflicts over the personal and official use of social media by public sector employees are again under the spotlight after a Federal Circuit Court Judge knocked-back an attempt by a Canberra public servant to obtain injunction on any move to have her sacked over tweets that were made in a non-official capacity.

In what has become be a landmark case for public servants across Australia, Michaela Banerji, a public affairs officer at the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, has lost her bid to have a stay put on moves to dismiss her over personal tweets she made using the handle @LaLegale.

The case has garnered intense interest in Canberra and across state governments because it has embroiled one of the Commonwealth public service’s most prominent official social media protagonists, Sandi Logan who is National Communications Manager at the Department of Immigration and Citizenship.

At the centre of the legal case is whether or not public servants have an “unfettered implied right (or freedom) of political expression/communication” under the Constitution as put forward by Ms Banerji.

Judge Warwick Neville found that they do not.

DIAC took action against Ms Banerji after a number of tweets were posted under handle @LaLegale that were critical of the DIAC and the government’s actions, particularly immigration detention centre policy.

The @LaLegale tweets clearly caused heartburn within DIAC, an agency which has been at the forefront of harnessing social media to convey departmental messaging directly to the public and bypassing frequently critical intermediaries and filters like the media.

An investigator from DIAC recommended that Ms Banerji be dismissed for breaking the Australian Public Service Code of Conduct that precludes the bureaucracy from publicly attacking the ministry and policies.

However Ms Banerji went to court to try and stop the moves to dismiss her and accused Mr Logan of bullying her.

On Wednesday, Mr Logan directly referenced the issue and the accusation of bullying when he addressed the Security in Government conference in Canberra.

“I usually start these presentations by introducing myself: Hi, I’m Sandi Logan, I’m here from the Department of Immigration and Citizenship and I’m here to help you,”Mr Logan said

“If you believe the papers over the last couple of days I am also here to bully you – but I can assure you that is not the case – and those are matters that are highly instructive, great learning opportunities, great lessons in where we are in the workplace and where we are headed in the workplace with our staff using social media.”

Accusations aside, there is little doubt that there are growing expectations for public servants across the board to keep their social media activities on the tame side, especially when it comes to partying and politics.

However the issue is becoming an increasingly tricky tightrope to walk because government agencies essentially cannot ban public sector employees from political activities such as membership of a party or union.

One distinctly slippery issue is industrial activity, such as protests against funding cuts, where public servants routinely use their private social media accounts to help organise and gather public support.

Some private sector organisations routinely use specialist human resources and reputation management firms to monitor their employees’ social media activity with a view to weeding out anyone who has the potential to cause problems.

However public sector organisations appear to be firmly resisting that trend with representatives of DIAC, the Australian Federal Police and the Victorian Department of Justice all telling the Security In Government Conference that they do not monitor their staff’s private accounts.

In the case of Ms Banerji, @LaLegale’s tweets responded directly to official DIAC tweets – an almost guaranteed way of attracting the attention of the Department.

Those manning the keyboards to post official tweets say it essentially comes down to a matter of trust in those public servants authorised to speak in social media fora. That trust is even more essential when there is an expectation of real time interaction with the public.

“It’s the trust of the CEO. There is no committee to determine which 140 characters from the alphabet we use   there’s trust,” Mr Logan said.

“It’s 24/7 you can’t just do it 9 to 5,” Mr Logan said, adding DIAC had “on-call arrangements from 6pm to 6am” to deal with both traditional media and social media.

Comment below to have your say on this story.

If you have a news story or tip-off, get in touch at  

Sign up to the Government News newsletter

3 thoughts on “Court rules against bureaucrat’s freedom to tweet

  1. Thank you for taking the time and trouble to comment on this topic. You raise some interesting points, in particular the complexity of the matter when we consider the right of public servants to vote and to join political parties.

    There’s just one thing that I’d like to clarify. You say that “public sector organisations appear to be firmly resisting that trend with representatives of DIAC, the Australian Federal Police and the Victorian Department of Justice all telling the Security In Government Conference that they do not monitor their staff’s private accounts”.

    You do not mention the department of Immigration and Citizenship in this list of departments. May I correctly infer that the DIAC does monitor the accounts of staff?

    PS BTW Just by way of clarification, I was not ever tweeting on behalf of the department, but in my own time and using a pseudonym. I did not ever defame or insult. I simply expressed political opinion. Do you consider it correct that a class of persons, public servants, should not have freedom of political opinion? First public servants, then teachers, then nurses…the list could go on. And all of this during an election campaign.

  2. I am really surprised that she got sacking for just expressing her opinion on a media platform that is used by so many million posters. I mean,how many people would have read her tweet?? I dont even have a twitter account and Im online a lot!
    what I have noticed from such media platforms..(I post on, an Indian real-time uncensored news website forum) is that its a very healthy place to vent your opinions. The forum has evolved over the years and really a lot of Indian issues are aired and a mature thought is formed. Initially,even I was of the opinion that the forum was too volatile and out-of-control but it actually has matured and there is a degree of restraint and detachment now.

    Yes,in this Indian forum, we actually welcome opinions from public servants,politicians, cops..well just about anybody. Thing is forum moves along and with volume of posters, your post is soon just a memory in a viewer who has been moved by it.(well, also rediff does read the posts and picks up on any worthy posts )

  3. Indeed Teachers, Nurses and Ambos all have gags and bans on public comment of various kinds already imposed in Victoria.

    As an example, Ambulance Officers are currently decorating their vehicles with explanatory slogans during their current Industrial Action.

    They can do this (and engage in any other form of public comment) *only* during approved Industrial Campaigns

Leave a comment:

Your email address will not be published. All fields are required