I can’t help thinking this whole ‘religious freedom’ argument is off-target. Everyone is talking about the wrong issue.
Israel Folau was sacked by his employer for allegedly breaching the terms of his contract. His ‘crime’ was to publicise an opinion on social media which his employer found embarrassing. That’s all.
I want, for a moment, to leave aside whether or not his words were hate speech, damaging to the LGTBTI community, a misuse of his pulpit as a famous rugby player, and look at what I think is the real issue here.
Everyone, religious and secular, is gagged by their employer. Businesses large and small will fire any employee who says anything on social media which they feel might reflect badly on the business. The fact that Folau’s messages were religious is merely incidental.
- A Japanese company fired a comedian who voiced their ads because he made a joke about Japanese tsunamis.
- A sports broadcaster was fired for opposing marriage equality.
- A teacher was fired for supporting marriage equality, because their employer was Catholic.
- Media personalities here in Australia have been fired for ‘disrespecting’ ANZACS.
- Universities fire academics who express the ‘wrong’ opinion on a contentious social issues, like trans rights.
The list is long.
You could get fired for saying almost anything: expressing support for a political party; posting pro or anti vaccination; expressing a belief in chemtrails, or flying saucers or alien abduction.
If the business thinks its brand is being damaged in any way, that their business is being brought into disrepute, they can, will and do fire you.
This is the real issue. Because the law hasn’t kept up with the development of social media – it’s a largely lawless arena – employers have abrogated to themselves the roles of judge, jury and executioner. Employers are free to specify what their employees can and cannot say, judge for themselves whether they have broken the rules, and impose punishment by depriving employees of their livelihood. I think this is wrong.
I think employees and contractors should be able to speak their minds on social media as freely as they do down the pub without fear of losing their jobs, provided they remain within the law. But they dare not. We are living in a society which criminalises and punishes those who speak their minds. Businesses are behaving like the Chinese Communist party, or the churches of old: shunning, ostracising and excommunicating those who fail to adhere to correct corporate doctrine.
If you disagree publicly with Putin, you might find yourself out of a job, or worse, in jail. Criticise Kim Jong Un and you could well end up in front of a firing squad. Publicise what really happened in Tiananmen Square and you will be spirited away to be re-educated.
The only difference – besides one of degree – is that in those countries it is governments who take away your livelihood, trash your career, and render you unemployable, or worse. Here the process has been outsourced to private enterprise, in the shape of employers and the owners of social media companies. And they are largely unaccountable for their actions.
And of course, so-called ‘religious’ folk are upset because it used to be their job to shun and ostracise those with whom they disagreed. They no longer have that power. And they want it back. They want to replace the current corporate supremacy with religious supremacy, over not just LGBTI people, but over social media companies, corporations, businesses of all sizes, and ultimately, the government.
This is where it gets tricky.
RIGHTS FOR ALL
On the one hand, I find myself agreeing that employment contracts, such as the one signed by Israel Folau, which restrict free speech on social media (or anywhere else) should be outlawed. Whether the opinion is religious or secular. We shouldn’t be singling out ‘religious speech’ for special treatment.
On the other hand, there ought to be some mechanism to constrain what can and can’t be said on social media, and by whom, which takes account of actual and potential harm done. But it should be under the auspices of the law, not an over-mighty corporate sector.
At the end of the day, the so-called ‘brand-damage’ or ‘reputational damage’ allegedly suffered by businesses through employees speaking their minds, is simply the hurt feelings of over-protected people unable to cope with anything less than servile flattery. A bit like Donald Trump. They should just suck it up.