Public servants and free speech: knowing when to shut up

Free speech is a fundamental democratic value; the Australian constitution impliedly protects political communication. Why, then, is the government so keen to gag public servants?

In his 1644 work Areopagitica, John Milton wrote:

“Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.”

Some 370 years later, freedom of expression remains a cherished right upheld by a number of constitutions and conventions across the globe.

Yet the ability of Australian public servants to freely express their opinions, particularly of the political kind, is not so well protected. Although the Public Service Commission may have claimed in a 2012 circular that “APS employees have the same right to freedom of expression as other members of the community”, the caveat that followed has helped justify significant burdens: “subject to legitimate public interests”.

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