Public servants are being warned that liking and sharing social media posts could put them in breach of their code of conduct and they may even be required to police anti-government messages posted by their friends.
The Community and Public Sector Union has argued that the new guidance, released by the Australian Public Service Commission (APSC) on Monday, represents an absurd restriction on members’ rights to participate in democracy.
The APSC guidance notes that the public service code of conduct “operates to limit” the right to freedom of speech in common law.
The most dangerous social media posts are those criticising a public servant’s minister, current or previous agency but anything that might lead a “reasonable person to conclude that [a public servant] cannot serve the government of the day impartially and professionally” is a breach of policy.
“What you say in your own time on social media can affect that confidence and the reputation of your agency and of the APS,” it warned.
The guidance warns that “liking” something on social media “will generally be taken to be an endorsement of that material as though you’d created that material yourself” and sharing a post “has much the same effect”.
It suggests public servants explicitly say if they have posted material because they disagree with it, warning applying an “angry face icon” may not be sufficient to explain.
If other social media users make “nasty comments” on a public servant’s posts, “doing nothing about objectionable material” could reasonably be interpreted as endorsement, the guidance said.
“If someone does post material of this kind, it may be sensible to delete it or make it plain that you don’t agree with it or support it.”
The guidance warns public servants they could be in breach even if their social media accounts, such as Facebook, are set to private, or contain disclaimers that the views expressed are not those of their employer.Social media posts “can be difficult to delete and may be replicated endlessly” and private emails can be shared through screenshots, it said.
Even anonymous posts or those using a pseudonym are not considered to be safe, as the APSC noted that there might be enough information online to determine if a person is a public servant. It added that agencies “often receive dob-ins about comments made by their employees”, which can be linked back to them “whether you intend it or not”.
The CPSU national secretary, Nadine Flood, said the new policy was “overreach” that failed to balance community faith in the public service with “allowing people who work in public services to undertake normal, everyday activity in a democracy”.
“It is one thing to say that public servants working on a particular government policy shouldn’t be publicly criticising that policy, quite another to say they have no right to engage on social media on anything that could be a community issue,” she said.
“The notion that the mum of a gay son who happens to work in Centrelink can’t like a Facebook post on marriage equality without endangering her job is patently absurd.”
Flood said it was “completely unreasonable” to face disciplinary action for a private email or “or something as benign as ‘liking’ a social media post”.