My correspondent writes:

The New South Wales RFS run a closed Facebook group which is intended to only be for members of the RFS. Over the last few days there has been a bunch of debates on the group regarding whether or not various RFS service standards apply or not within the group. Some of this discussion got very heated leading one of the paid staff who look after the group to delete comments from several members and posting the following message:

“Just a reminder that this is an official NSW RFS channel managed by the NSW RFS for members of the service. As a result Service Standard 1.4.5 Social Media applies to any discussions that occur here and we expect people to behave in a way that is consistent with our organisational values.

I’ve just removed a bunch of posts and comments that used offensive language, were making personal attacks on other people or which served no purpose other than to agitate other members. This kind of behaviour is certainly not in line with our values and is therefore not acceptable within this group. People who choose to repeatedly post this kind of content will be banned.”

This has led to further discussion about whether members can potentially face disciplinary action as a result of content posted in the group or whether the admin is overstepping the mark and the worst that can be done is the removal of the member from the group (but not disciplinary action under the service standards). As there seems to be a variety of opinions being raised on the matter I was hoping you could provide your expert opinion on some of the questions being raised as there doesn’t seem to be much clarity on the issue at the moment.

Particularly some of the questions being asked include:

1) Does the RFS social media service standard apply in an official rfs members only group? If so could disciplinary action be bought against a member for conduct posted in the group?

2) Do other service standards (specifically the service standard on safe and inclusive workplace) apply within the group?

3) If service standards do apply in the group do they only apply to staff or volunteers as well?

4) If members have removed any public material identifying themselves as an RFS member and don’t have the RFS listed as their employer but are a member of the group are they exempt from the social media service standard and RFS discipline processes (if it would otherwise apply to the group)?

5) Are comments posted in the group protected by the concept of freedom of speech even if other members may find them offensive or bullying? if so do the staff admins have the right to remove them?

Your thoughts on the matter would be most appreciated

A closed Facebook group has to be the property of the administrator who can decide who is allowed into the group and the rules that apply to the group.  It certainly seems that Service Standard 1.4.5 Social Media is intended to apply to public sites (see [3.1]) so arguably it does not apply to a ‘closed’ group that only contains RFS members.  But even so postings to that group ‘may reflect on the image or reputation of the NSW RFS’ [1.1].  But to return to my opening statement, if the site is managed by the RFS and the administrator wants to apply the Service Standard, he or she can.   In short it applies if the administrator says it does.

Even if it did not, other service standards would, such as Service Standard 1.1.7 Code of Conduct and Ethics.  Even without that an administrator can remove any comment he or she sees fit and may well be duty bound to remove those that ‘used offensive language, were making personal attacks on other people or which served no purpose other than to agitate other members’.

To turn to the questions:

1) Does the RFS social media service standard apply in an official RFS Members only group? If so could disciplinary action be bought against a member for conduct posted in the group?

It does if the administrator says it does.  A breach of discipline in the RFS includes a failure to comply with the Service Standards (Rural Fires Regulation 2013 (NSW) r 9).  Disciplinary action could be brought against a member for breach of any service standard, whether that occurs online or at the station.

2) Do other service standards (specifically the service standard on safe and inclusive workplace) apply within the group?

Yes.  If this is a closed group, open only to members of the RFS, conduct in that group is as much bound by the service standards as conduct in the tea room or in an appliance.

3) If service standards do apply in the group do they only apply to staff or volunteers as well?

Yes, the service standards apply to all members of the RFS (Rural Fires Act 1997 (NSW) ss 8 and 13), in accordance with their terms (ie if they say they only apply to volunteers or staff then that is the case (see for example [3.49] of Service Standard 1.1.42 Respectful and Inclusive Workplace).

4) If members have removed any public material identifying themselves as an RFS member and don’t have the RFS listed as their employer but are a member of the group are they exempt from the social media service standard and RFS discipline processes (if it would otherwise apply to the group)?

No, they are still members of the RFS, otherwise they wouldn’t be part of the group.  That’s like asking ‘am I bound by the service standards if I turn up to a meeting or the fire station out of uniform’.    A member of the RFS is bound by the service standards because they are a member.  For example paragraph 3.1 of the Social Media Service Standard say ‘Members must be mindful of the information they post on public forums because it may impact on the reputation of the NSW RFS’ and there follows a list of material that must not be posted including ‘confidential or sensitive information’.  That has to apply even if one does not say ‘I’m a member of the RFS’.  On the other hand a member must not post material that may be ‘interpreted to be of a commercial or political nature’ but that has to be fine if the are posting on a public group and give no RFS affiliation, for example if they want to publicly comment on political matters or promote their own business.  But then the publication in no way reflects on the RFS.  It all has to be considered ‘in context’.   In this context given it’s a closed group, removing any identifying material won’t make a difference.  Clearly the person’s part of the RFS, it’s an RFS group.

5) Are comments posted in the group protected by the concept of freedom of speech even if other members may find them offensive or bullying? if so do the staff admins have the right to remove them?

No.  There are limits to freedom of speech.

Although Australian law does not have an express guarantee of free speech, the High Court has acknowledged in various decisions that an implied freedom of communication exists under the Constitution in relation to political and government matters (Leanne Griffiths ‘The Implied Freedom Of Political Communication: The State Of The Law Post Coleman And Mulholland’ (2005) 12 James Cook University Law Review 93-111, 93)

Given the ‘implied freedom’ in the Australian Constitution you could or should be able to disagree with government policy if you think they are going the wrong direction. But that’s not defence to saying rude, personal or defamatory things about the Minister.  But remember this is a private group.  Just because you have a right to say something doesn’t mean others have an obligation to listen and just because you have a right to express a political opinion doesn’t mean you have a right to do it in any forum you want.  You may want to express your political views but the local paper doesn’t have to publish them, and the administrator of a private group doesn’t have to let them remain.