In what may be a relief to disgruntled employees across the country, the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court recently ruled that action can’t be taken against legal messages critical of company management posted on WhatsApp chats, LiveLaw reported.
Filed by bank employee and trade unionist Lakshminarayan, the complaint challenged disciplinary actions launched against him for “mocking” and “belittling” the bank’s management on a WhatsApp group last year. The Court upheld Lakshminarayanan’s “right to vent” by quashing the disciplinary memo issued to him.
Justice G.R. Swaminathan held that “it is in the interest of the organization that the complaints find expression and ventilation…If in the process, the image of the organization is affected, then the management can step in but not till then.”
Justice Swaminathan added that private speech taking place on an encrypted platform, similar to speech taking place at home, cannot attract regulatory action from management. Doing so would amount to thought-policing by the employer. Further, if the messages had discussed committing a crime, then action could have been taken. However, “common interest” matters cannot be prosecuted.
“In the coming days, powerful managements may be possessed with Pegasus-like technology providing them access to private conversations,” Justice Swaminathan warned. “Courts may dread such scenario, but then would still firmly say that charges cannot be framed on the strength of information gleaned through such means.”
The Court added that while government employees’ rights are snipped by conduct rules, this doesn’t take away their free speech rights at large.
“When even prisoners have fundamental rights…it would be ridiculous to suggest that the moment a person becomes a bank employee, he has to bid good-bye to Article 19(1)(a) [the right to free speech],” Justice Swaminathan observed. “The fundamental right insofar as it applies to the petitioner might have lost a bit of sheen but its core would remain with all vigor.”
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