Outrage Culture Is Killing Free Speech


Australia is becoming increasingly intolerant of speech. From the Australian Rugby Union terminating Israel Folau’s playing contract to the fake controversy about the impending visit of British writer Raheem Kassam to attend the Conservative Political Action Conference in Sydney, examples of a growing outrage culture mount every day.

Adding to this list is today’s decision by the High Court to unanimously uphold the sacking of a public servant for posting criticism of government policy using an anonymous Twitter account. Michaela Banerji had been employed at what was known at the time as the Department of Citizenship and Border Protection (it is now part of the Department of Home Affairs) but was fired when it was discovered she was running the account, which she had used to comment on immigration policy and the detention of asylum seekers.

The Administrative Appeals Tribunal originally found that the sacking violated Banerji’s constitutional implied right to freedom of political communication, but the High Court held that the restrictions placed on public servants’ freedom of speech by the Australian Public Service code of conduct are proportional to the public’s right to have an apolitical public service that can be trusted to administer the policies of governments no matter the results of elections.

What should concern Australians about this decision is not whether the High Court interpreted the law correctly—a unanimous decision suggests the court had no doubt about that. Instead, what we need to start thinking about is whether we want to have a country in which codes of conduct for employees purport to govern such a wide range of speech. Moreover, we should wonder whether we can have democratic government if every time anyone says anything about anything, we jump all over each other.

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