Digital Citizens told: Freedom of tweet? You never had it

People working in communications who bemoan the loss of their right to freely tweet their views regardless of client or business conflict never had the right in the first place, last night’s first meeting of Digital Citizens was told.  

The debate, held in Sydney, heard from Ogilvy PR’s Sam North, a former managing editor at the Sydney Morning Herald. He told the audience: “If you are talking about your clients negatively then you’ve got a problem. Why should you be able to? It’s never happened throughout history – why should social media be different?”

And journalist Renai LeMay, founder of Delimiter, warned that simply removing an employer’s details from a social media profile was not enough to give people freedom to say whatever they wanted, as the information was still readily available. He said: “I think you should put who you work for on your Twitter account. If you don’t, journalists are going to find out anyway.”

BMF’s Damian Damjanovski warned: “Advertising is one of the first industries which is seeing a blur in a personal presence online and professional presence online. It’s reasonable to expect that anybody who can find any portion of an online presence can find other areas.”

Earlier this year, Mumbrella reported on PR agency Hill & Knowlton’s issues with client Telstra after a senior member of staff used Twitter several times to criticise the dumping of its phone directories.

North said: “What you say about Telstra around the dinner table is one thing. But what you say on Twitter is a different thing.”

In response to the suggestion that this reduced the right to freedom of speech, North said: ‘You never had that right. You had the right of private conversation.”

However social media lawyer Adrian Dayton urged against keeping Twitter profiles to a locked setting, as one purpose of using the tool is to build up a profile. Urging the use of “good judgement” in what was sensible to tweet, he said: “If you set it to private, you might as well be at the dinner table.” He added: “Anything you would say to a group of people at a party you would say on Twitter.”

And LeMay added: “You need to realise that Twitter is not private. If you’ve got one folllower, you are not private.”

However Damjanovski argued: “A lot of people out there use it as a personal communications method. There are lots of people with no more than 70 followers . When did we get to the point that this is suddenly publishing and should be treated as such?

Audience member Kate Carruthers pointed out that Australian law doesn’t guarantee freedom of speech, and employment contracts perpetuate “a master-servant relationship”.


  1. Alison F
    10 Mar 10
    10:14 am

  2. I agree with Sam North. However the lines of social online presence and professional online presence are blurring to a point that we seem to be entering unknown territory.
    It has always seemed to me that those in advertising and communications have never totally accepted the confidentiality agreements that we have all had to sign when we take on new Clients.
    My solution… create a separate, professional online name/identity and bury your real details next time you want to take a piece out of your Client!

  3. Gavin
    10 Mar 10
    10:22 am

  4. Hi Tim
    That wasn’t my take out at all. Of course you have Freedom to Tweet, Share, Facebook, whatever you want to call it. You also have the freedom to exercise your good judgement while doing so.
    The objective of last nights meetup wasn’t to scare people into NOT using Social Media, but to help alert people to the dangers of unconsidered sharing in the Online (or Published as Sam North would say) space. Many of the conversations I had afterwards stand that thought up.
    The use of online as communication method is a boon to most people, and I firmly believe the positives FAR outweigh the negatives.
    (Disclaimer; I’m one of the un-organisers of last nights event, and I’m really stoked with the success and great feedback so far)

  5. Danielle S
    10 Mar 10
    11:16 am

  6. I agree with Dayton in a way – i think the key is whether you keep your account public or private. If you lock your account down then you should be able to say what you want. You choose who to follow and who follows you – so it’s very much like talking at a dinner table. That’s freedom to have conversation.

    But the minute you open your account to the public, whether you like it or not it becomes a publishing medium because anyone can get access to what you are saying. So in that case you are obliged to be mindful of what you say about your company or your clients because your comments have entered the public domain.

  7. Kate Carruthers
    10 Mar 10
    12:28 pm

  8. The thing that really got clarified for me in listening to the panel last night is that we members of the social media community need to get our heads around the law & how it might apply to many of the things we & our clients do online these days.

    The law is slow to adapt to new things & we remain subject to the law as it stands whether we like it or not.

    IMHO it is terrible that we have no constitutional protections for freedom of speech in this country.

  9. Peter Adams
    10 Mar 10
    12:52 pm

  10. As a former journo now in PR, I find it staggering that this even needs to be explained.
    To put anything on the internet is to publish… period ! And you render yourself fair game for doing so.
    You wouldn’t slag a client on TV, talkback radio, or the letters pages… and you shouldn’t on Twitter, unless you’re ready for the consequences.
    Pure commonsense I would have thought ! And as the courts have (thankfully)shown, defamation is defamation whether you do it in the old media or the new.
    This isn’t rocket science people. Social media is/are just another means of transmitting information. It’s the content, its veracity and the intention of its use that must always be accounted for.

  11. Kristian
    10 Mar 10
    1:37 pm

  12. I think the question being asks by North and others is fundamentally wrong. We should not be asking individuals to positively prove their right to freedom of speech in certain situations. We should install universal freedom of speech as a basic right, and work from there.

    Thus real question ought to be something like:

    “Under what circumstances should employers/clients – as corporate bodies (not individuals) be permitted to infringe on the freedom of speech that is recognised as a natural right of people in a liberal democracy?”

    Reasons we might restrict freedom of speech generally revolve around harm that it can cause natural persons (e.g incitement to violence against particular people), if we restrict freedom of speech on the same grounds, but because of harm caused to corporations, then we are essentially subjectivising corporations – saying that corporations can be harmed in precisely the same way people can (not generalised financial harm, but specific affective/physical harm). For some that might be okay, after all, some people think that corporations should have the vote. For me, and any socially progressive individual in a liberal democracy, this should be considered a disaster.

  13. sven
    10 Mar 10
    3:14 pm

  14. dear me
    does anyone other than Sam North and Peter Adams have significant experience in the post-university world?
    They are the only ones talking any sense on this topic
    this issue has zero to do with freedom of speech – North was not being literal.
    nor is it about applying the law of defamation to corporations (let alone ‘subjectivising’ them!)
    the law does not need to ‘adapt’ to twitter!

    As Peter said, this is basic commonsense – you wouldn’t appear on TV slagging your employer because it might affect your pay and promotion prospects, right?

    “debates” like this simply confirm to me that ‘social media’ has no chance of surviving as an independent marketing/comms discipline unless its adherents pull their heads out of their bums and realise that it is a communications tool, not some new societal paradigm

  15. barry
    10 Mar 10
    3:30 pm

  16. >>However Damjanovski argued: “A lot of people out there use it as a personal communications method. There are lots of people with no more than 70 followers . When did we get to the point that this is suddenly publishing and should be treated as such?

    I’m not a lawyer, but as i recall the standard for what constitutes publishing in the context of defamation was simply that it was written for at least one other person. So writing a personal letter constituted publication, in that regard.

    As for the freedom of speech issue, that’s something that can depend on your conditions of employment. This is an interesting example:

  17. Kristian
    10 Mar 10
    4:22 pm

  18. @Sven I suspect that there are indeed people besides the two you’ve mentioned that have significant experience of the post-university world. Though I’m not entirely sure why this is relevant.

    North said: “What you say about Telstra around the dinner table is one thing. But what you say on Twitter is a different thing.”

    In response to the suggestion that this reduced the right to freedom of speech, North said: ‘You never had that right. You had the right of private conversation.”

    I’m not sure what it means to say that he wasn’t being literal in this sense? As far as I can tell the suggestion is that we never had the right to publicly (negatively) comment on our employer – which is not only legally untrue, but contradicts the foundations of the liberal democracy that we live in. On what grounds should someone like Fergus Kibble (in the Telstra directory dumping case) be denied the right to raise issues with particular practices? Why should he be punished for opening up reasonable discussion on the issue, or even just offering an opinion?

  19. Glen Frost
    10 Mar 10
    5:24 pm

  20. You do have the right to free speech, and others have the right to terminate your employment :-)

  21. barry
    10 Mar 10
    5:35 pm

  22. >>You do have the right to free speech, and others have the right to terminate your employment

    Again, that’s not an absolute, and there are legitimate defences. The QUT case above illuminates some of the complexities in firing someone for something they say in public.

  23. Damian Damjanovski
    10 Mar 10
    5:48 pm

  24. I heard that Damian guy is a bit of a douchebag.

  25. Joel
    10 Mar 10
    6:09 pm

  26. I’ve heard the same about that Damian guy…

    He is a frequent source of inspiration on

  27. Damian Damjanovski
    10 Mar 10
    9:13 pm

  28. Indeed, his douchebaggery is an inspiration for many.

  29. franksting
    10 Mar 10
    9:24 pm

  30. he wears nice shoes though, sorry to hear they got scuffed. Not unsurprising considering the location of said scuffing, these things happen when you visit lower class establishments

  31. anon1
    11 Mar 10
    3:53 pm

  32. I wonder if there is a pattern here, where people who have worked as actual journalists appear to have a better grasp of the significance of Twitter than PR people?

    Journalists understand what publishing is, and the responsibility that (should) go with it. That when it goes to air/hits the press/makes the airwaves, it is out and public and impossible to erase or retract.

    Whereas those that have never worked in this field (which includes many business and PR professionals) don’t appear to comprehend the significance of Twitter as a medium.

    If it’s out, it’s out. And by god, if it’s Twittered, and thence picked up by Google, it is OUT. Permanently. Forever.

  33. Gavin
    11 Mar 10
    4:26 pm

  34. Dear anon1

    How do you mean ‘permanently. forever’

    Try searching for tweets from 2 years ago for me, bet you find some, but not many


  35. Defamation Expert
    13 Mar 10
    1:18 pm

  36. Defamation is defamation. Whether it’s published online, via private email, text message or even spoken (albeit harder to prove).

    The reason these laws exist is not to impinge on free speech – it’s to protect the rights of individuals and corporations from being defamed. It’s to stop bullies and liars from dragging people through the mud.

    If I were to make a comment about an ex employee that wasn’t true, and they can prove the nature of that comment affected their livelihood and emotional well being, that employee is entitled to sue both my organisation and myself personally.

    If I were to make a comment about an ex client that wasn’t true, the same rule applies.

    If I were to make a defaming comment right here on a blog, my IP would be tracked to a VPN and the necessary criminal and or civil charges would result.

    Cyber bullying and rumour mongering is still bullying and rumour mongering, and there are reasons there are laws to protect it – they have nothing to do with freedom of speech.

    What people are talking about here, is abuse of peoples and corporations rights to exist without being harassed or shat-upon by jaded, bitter, individuals or corporations.

    Hope that’s cleared it up for you.

    16 Mar 10
    11:14 am

  38. Problem with Twitter is anybody can see your history of tweets, so if you bag the boss or your job, then it’s still visable, that’s why I tell my friends on Facebook that by boss is a c… I dont have him as a friend, but then there are ways around this too.

    I use Twitter to promote my site and meet like minded people. Looked like a good event this Digital Citezens thing, spewing I missed it.

    When is the next one held?


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