While it is common for people to express their feelings, frustrations or criticism on messaging platforms, a bank employee’s message on a WhatsApp group criticising the management and belittling higher authorities landed him in the soup. He filed a petition before the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court seeking relief.
Granting him relief, Justice G.R. Swaminathan observed, “There is something called ‘right to vent’. Every employee or member of an organisation will have some issue or the other with the management…. It is in the interest of the organisation that the complaints find expression and ventilation. It will have a cathartic effect. If in the process the image of the organisation is affected, then the management can step in, but not till then.” The court quashed the charge memo issued against the petitioner by the bank.
The court was hearing a petition filed by A. Lakshminarayanan, an employee of Tamil Nadu Grama Bank, Thoothukudi, and a trade union activist. He was facing disciplinary action after he had posted messages against the authorities on a private WhatsApp group created for union activities.
The court said Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution guaranteed freedom of speech and expression subject to reasonable restrictions. “Let us assume that a group of employees are having a chat in one of their homes. So long as it is a private chat, it cannot attract the regulatory framework of the management. The common law principle is ‘every man’s home is his castle’. If bar room gossip is published, that would definitely attract contempt of court. But then, so long as it remains private, cognisance cannot be taken,” the court observed.
The principles applicable to a chat in a home could be applied to what took place in an encrypted virtual platform that had restricted access. Such an approach alone would be in consonance with liberal democratic traditions. We were yet to enter the worlds envisaged by Aldous Huxley in ‘Brave New World’ and George Orwell in ‘1984’. What the respondent proposed amounts to thought-policing, the court observed.
The court observed that the concept of privacy was now a recognised fundamental right. Not only individuals but even groups had privacy rights. Time had come to recognise the concept of ‘group privacy’.
The court observed that in the coming days, powerful managements might be possessed with Pegasus-like technology providing them access to private conversations. Courts might dread such a scenario, but then would still firmly say that charges could not be framed on the strength of information gleaned through such means. Of course, the content shared over the end-to-end encrypted communication platform must be within the legal bounds.
The members of the WhatsApp group formed by the petitioner felt aggrieved by some of the bank’s actions and the petitioner expressed his views. Of course, the manner of expression could not be said to be in good taste, but everyone had his own way of articulating. The message posted by the petitioner could not be said to attract the Conduct Rules laid down by the management. The petitioner apologised for the language used. In these circumstances, the act committed by the petitioner could not amount to misconduct, the court observed.
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