This was the main article in my Observer column this week. It was published on 22 July 2018, under the headline ‘Why are employers allowed to police what we say as private citizens?’
Angela Williamson needed an abortion. The trouble was, she lived in Tasmania. Abortion is legal in the state, but the last abortion clinic closed in December. So, this February, Williamson was forced to travel to Melbourne for her operation. Distressed and angry, she dashed off a few tweets to express her fury.
Back in Tasmania, she continued to tweet about the lack of abortion facilities. She also held a confidential meeting with a senior member of the Tasmanian government to argue for the restoration of services.
Williamson was employed by Cricket Australia. A Tasmanian government staffer anonymously emailed Cricket Australia with a screenshot of one of her tweets. And then, Williamson alleges, an official informed her employer about the confidential meeting.
Nine days later, Williamson was sacked by Cricket Australia.
The case raises a number of issues. The first is the issue that Williamson herself raised – that of abortion facilities. Abortion was decriminalised in Tasmania in 2013, but remains unavailable through the state’s public health system. Tasmania’s current health minister, Michael Ferguson, was a vocal opponent of the 2013 law.
There has been a pushback against abortion legislation in many countries in recent years. Even where there is a legal right to abortion, however, that right is worthless unless women can access facilities. In America, for instance, conservative states have created so many obstacles in the way of women seeking termination that many can no longer exercise their right. Similarly in Tasmania, the decriminalisation is almost meaningless given the lack of clinics.
If Tasmania lacked facilities to treat people with cancer, there would be outrage. The lack of abortion clinics should equally elicit fury. It is not Williamson’s tweets but Tasmania’s failure to ensure even minimal abortion provision that is offensive.
This takes us to the second issue: the right of an employee to speak his or her mind when acting as a private citizen. A spokesman for Cricket Australia claimed that it ‘respects an individual’s right to their opinion’; however, ‘it expects that employees will refrain from making offensive comments’.
How did Williamson cause offence? She called the government’s refusal to ensure abortion provision a disgrace. When parliament rejected a motion calling on public hospitals to provide abortions, she labelled it ‘most irresponsible, gutless and reckless’.
If this is offensive, then any strong political opinion is offensive. Cricket Australia ‘respects an individual’s right to their opinion’ only insofar as that opinion is not critical of government policy.
The case highlights the changing relationship between employee and employer and between the public and private spheres. Until recently, the boundary between the public and private was made porous largely because of the willingness of people to put put on display the most intimate aspects of their lives.
Increasingly, however, the boundary is being ripped down from the other side – through employers’ insistence that they have the right to control what one says as a private individual. From Steven Salaita, the academic whose appointment was blocked by the University of Illinois after he posted tweets about Gaza deemed antisemitic, to James Gunn, sacked by Disney last month as director of the Guardians of the Galaxy films because of decade-old tweets in which he joked about rape and paedophilia, employers are increasingly looking on social media as an extension of the workplace.
The ability of employers to police employees’ comments has been made easier by the way that many now use social media as a weapon against those whose views they despise. It has become common practice to comb through an individual’s back tweets, to highlight nasty or embarrassing comments, and to demand that they be punished or sacked for them.
There is, of course, a world of difference between Williamson’s demand for political change and the racist or misogynist tweets, of, say, Roseanne Barr or Toby Young. Employers may be rightly concerned about their public image. But once we accept that employers have a right to control what we say as private citizens, then it becomes difficult to draw clear lines between acceptable and unacceptable tweets. And protection of public image should not become an all-encompassing means of controlling employees’ views.
Women should have the right to abortion, in practice as well as in principle. Employers should not have the right to dictate what views are acceptable outside the workplace.