Pandaemonium

SILENCED BY THE WORKPLACE

silenced

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.

7 comments

  1. Trevor Bell

    I agree with most of what you say but I can imagine circumstances where an employer might be justified in firing an employee. Your last sentence could be subject to a few exceptions. Imagine an employee of a sporting team who is responsible for “sponsor relations” who on her private twitter feed regularly complains bitterly about the team’s major sponsor. It is possible someone could ruin their relationship with sponsoring companies so much that they become incapable of doing their job. In this case the employee was in charge of “Government Relations” but her conduct probably wasn’t enough to make her incapable of doing her job. Also, I think a distinction can be made where the person is criticising the government. Our ability to criticise government with impunity is so important that perhaps almost anything goes.but I’m not sure the same can be said for non-government criticism.

    • steve roberts

      There is a real problem for free speech with your last sentence because what you are effectively saying is that free speech can be justifiably limited so that companies can continue with their pursuit to accumulate in the “free market”
      If we had a culture of free speech and an understanding of it’s importance to all our freedoms and that each individual in whatever capacity was responsible for their own speech, and that all institutions, governments and companies has it in their mission statements something akin to this the society we live in would be politically and socially healthier, not restricted.
      If not, who decides on acceptability or is it determined by the potential profitability of companies, that seems really unhealthy and unfree too.
      Depends on how much we desire and understand freedom and if one is prepared to give it away or fight for more.

  2. A crazy state of affairs. The balance of power, which should be moderated by the institutions of a democratic state, is being tipped in favour of heads of institutions who no longer respect the law or fear meaningful sanction from either the executive or the judiciary. A case in point is President Trump, who rules by tweet, the more offensive and irresponsible the better. Social media is then utilized by his supporters – whether they be rogue states or crooked lawyers – to discredit his critics. Angela Williamson’s case is an increasingly representative example of an abuse of democratic power, and if there’s any justice in Australia she should have a good case for wrongful dismissal. The guilty Ministers and officials in both the Tasmanian government and Cricket Australia should be forced to resign. It remains to be seen whether any of this will happen.

    ‘Not only must justice be done; it must also be seen to be done.’ Cases like Trump’s and Williamson’s undermine the wider public’s confidence in the institutions of the state to act impartially and in keeping with the spirit of the law. Thanks to globalization, 24 hour news coverage and social media, the world is now an interconnected whole in which abuses that take place on one side of the planet can – in a matter of days – be utilized by the unscrupulous on the other. Distance is no barrier, and time has been compressed into a sort of permanent, frenetic ‘now’ with no real past or future. Everything is action and reaction, operating in accordance with some inscrutable and uncontainable irrationale.

    All over the world the institutions of the open society are struggling assert their authority, and as they lose the respect of the public, the societies that depend for their cohesion ON that authority quickly break down into competing factions with irreconcilable interests. Social contracts are discarded, international treaties are ripped up, resulting in an erosion of trust not only between nations, but within them. I see no credible opposition to this trend, therefore I expect it to continue along a similar trajectory until conflict breaks out. Reason has lost its power to persuade. Passion has replaced circumspection with base emotion and appetite.

    One question continually recurs to me: How does a man maintain his humanity in a world gone mad? If and when violence erupts, to what do we resort to guide our actions? In the face of Communism and Nazism, Milosz thought it was enough to write to serve humanity. Sartre thought we should become ‘superior’ men, and disdained the sentimentalism that caused revolutionaries to baulk at murder if it also threatened the life of an innocent bystander. Faced with a choice between ‘justice’ and his mother, Camus – guided by an unwritten but powerfully sensed ‘morality of limits’ – chose his mother.

    For those of us who can’t write as well as Milosz, or rationalize as heartlessly as Sartre, or FEEL as reliably as Camus, what do we do?

  3. steve roberts

    Your post is wide ranging but “.. The balance of power, which should be moderated by the institutions of a democratic state” needs some clarification before much more could be discussed.
    Off topic, but in the U.K. the balance of power from the demos in a record turnout in the referendum has been stolen by an authoritarian political class refusing to honour the balance of power, not exactly the actions of moderation by the institutions of an allegedly democratic state.
    Quite problematic wouldn’t you agree ?

  4. The ethics and morality of social media are a work in progress.
    A dentist was recently disciplined by the General Dental Council (the dentists’ regulatory body) for remarks made on a private forum for dentists, after another dentist had taken a screen shot and reported him, although the police took the view that what he had written wasn’t ‘hate speech’. I (as a retired dentist) thought the disciplinary action justified, although many of my erstwhile colleagues disagreed and thought the person’s right to free speech had been infringed.

    • What is meant by “disciplined”? If it means loss of certification, that is a very heavy penalty indeed.

      One school authority in Scotland regards teachers in its employ as answerable to it for their Facebook postings, even if they posed as individuals without mentioning the school, on the grounds that those who know them will recognise them as being the authority’s employees. This seems to me unconscionable

  5. Christopher

    I support the firing of James Gunn from the perspective of Disney’s reputation and trustworthiness. Disney is, by and large, a entertainment empire geared towards families and children. It is to maintain this trust that they cannot keep somebody who has joked about, of all things, paedophilia.

    Additionally, the extremely public environment of the media industry changes some of the rules that ought protect employees in other sectors. The political speech for which Angela Williamson was fired from a cricket team must be protected.

    I find most bothersome of this story, though, the politician and other government employee who contacted her employer and essentially tattled on her for daring to come to them with an issue.

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