It is important to protect fundamental freedoms of all citizens, government employees being no exception.
The Tripura High Court’s recent judgment saying government employees are free to air opinions on political and policy matters online ignores many complex questions. In the present case, a state government employee had been suspended and her retirement benefits withheld for participating in a political rally and, subsequently, making a Facebook post the state government deemed political canvassing involving defamatory comments against political leaders. The government had argued that this violated the model code of conduct for civil servants. Tripura HC chief justice Akil Kureshi, however, held that “there is a vital difference between attending a rally and participating in a rally,” and that the content of the post did not amount to political campaigning. He held that government employees are entitled to hold their own beliefs and express them in the manner desired, subject to the restrictions placed by Rule 5 of the Conduct Rules.
It is important to protect fundamental freedoms of all citizens, government employees being no exception. But, in the age of social media, boundaries between private and public communication have gotten blurred. Were, say, the finance secretary of India to criticise, in his personal capacity, a policy decision like the corporate tax cut on Twitter, would this be acceptable? Stakeholders can only interpret this as a policy flip-flop, something that could have steep economic costs. Social media policies that govern posts on sensitive subjects are the norm in the private sector. There are reasonable restrictions on freedom of speech, and in the case of government servants, extra-caution isn’t unwarranted.