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Can you be sacked for speaking out? Well, it depends on the circumstances

Most people will only have heard of Lee Williams and his right-wing views following a highly public and widely reported confrontation with the ACT party leader David Seymour. This took place at an ACT​ event in Ashburton relatively recently.

ACT leaderWilliams had been dismissed from dairy company Synlait for expressing extreme views on social media and was seeking support from Seymour on the grounds of his right to freedom of speech. In addition to working for the dairy company, Williams runs a YouTube channel that posts far-right content.

A petition was launched online calling for Synlait to stop employing him. The petition said: “Lee has been responsible for disseminating extreme white supremacist material, and has consistently been reported for creating objectionable and racist media for his channel.”

Reference was also made to him directly attacking Māori MPs in the petition. He lost his job following the petition.

Williams confronted Seymour about his dismissal in Ashburton and the interaction was posted online.

Williams accused Seymour of “saying it is OK if 10,000 people signed a petition to get a man sacked from his job and destroyed and cancelled – you're saying that’s OK”, and of not “standing up for freedom”.

He called Seymour a “fake” and “a bloody fraud” and said “Māori will own 50 per cent of the country by 2040”.

But was Williams’ dismissal fair and reasonable, if he was dismissed for the reasons he has alleged?

It is not clear if he has challenged the dismissal, but there have been other cases where people have challenged their dismissal for speaking out publicly.

Whether the dismissal is fair and reasonable really does depend on the exact circumstances. The cases go both ways.

In one case, John Dryden worked for the Radio Network of New Zealand Ltd as a breakfast host on Radio Forestland until his dismissal.

The letter of dismissal said Dryden failed to act in a professional and appropriate manner, his actions brought the employer into disrepute, and he failed to follow a lawful and reasonable instructions.

The employment relationship took place within the small community of Tokoroa.

The allegations arose following a general meeting Dryden had attended about a local matter. The meeting had been chaired by the mayor of Tokoroa. The radio station had a relationship with the mayor and obviously with the community.

At the meeting Dryden repeatedly talked over the mayor, demanding he answer a question. Witnesses also viewed his conduct as inappropriate and unprofessional towards his manager when she approached him about his conduct at the time.

Dryden attempted to defend his conduct on the basis that he was at the meeting in a personal capacity as a citizen of Tokoroa and that his actions could not have impacted on his employer.

However, the Employment Relations Authority found Dryden was “clearly recognisable as being the Breakfast host on Radio Forestland” and that his conduct brought his employer into disrepute.

The authority found his dismissal was justified.

On the other hand, Teeny Lowe succeeded in a case for unjustified dismissal against the Tararua District Council for her actions at a community meeting.

She was a community development adviser and her employer was proposing to restructure the delivery of community development assistance and reduce funding.

They wanted to set up a trust to deliver the services and reduce the council’s contribution by $20,000. These changes would result in the early termination of her role.

The council called a town meeting to discuss the proposed trust and how community development could best meet the needs of the community.

At the meeting, Lowe was asked to give her opinion. She read a prepared statement to the effect that the trust had “little credibility and no future” and she would not be involved with that, but would remain in her position with the council until the expiry of the contract.

Lowe challenged her dismissal in the Employment Court, but unlike Dryden she was successful.

The court held it was not reasonable to require Lowe to take a neutral stance to the trust proposal at the public meeting as she was directly affected by it, and her role in it was pivotal.

Lowe was at the meeting in her official capacity to make a contribution to the debate about the proposed policy and she was entitled to express her opinion.

Under the Local Government Act, the council was required to act in the public interest. Prior instructions to keep the information she held confidential had clearly expired, the court held. The reasons given by the council for her dismissal were not justified.

Lee Williams seems to be a long way from what happened at the Tararua District Council meeting, but as you can see from the cases, the courts will decide each case on their merits.

It is hard to see Williams getting support for his extreme views. The royal commission into the mosque killings in Christchurch had a section in its report dealing with the importance of social inclusion for minority groups.

Racist or divisive views do nothing to help the social inclusion of different ethnic groups in this country. Social inclusion is certainly something most of us want.

The fact a petition was raised against Williams and submitted to his employer is certainly evidence that his actions were being connected to his employer.

As seen in the case of Dryden, this could certainly support a claim any dismissal was justified. Whether what Williams said justified his dismissal is a matter for the courts to decide, and it will depend on all the circumstances.

Seymour said it well when he told Williams he had a “choice” and was now facing the consequences of his actions.