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September 18, 2009

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Aussie jail guards fight for right to gripe online

A GROUP of prison guards dubbed the Facebook Five has gone to an Australian court to fight for the right to complain about their boss on the Internet.

The case has stirred debate in Australia about whether writing on social networking sites amounts to a chat between friends or a form of publishing.

New South Wales state prison authorities accused the five guards of misconduct and threatened to fire them last month over their disgruntled cyber exchanges about their superiors, including the man who runs the state's prisons, Corrective Services Commissioner Ron Woodham.

Their union, the Public Service Association, has gone to the state Industrial Relations Commission to save their jobs.

The union also wants the court to change the prison guards' employment agreement to protect them from disciplinary action "in respect of out-of-work conduct intended to be private," according to the documents.

A hearing on the case began on Wednesday and will continue until Tuesday. The Australian media have dubbed the three men and two women the Facebook Five.

Union official Stewart Little said the prison guards were letting off steam in their own time and within a private Facebook group that was closed to outsiders over plans by management to privatize a Sydney prison operated by the state government. It is unclear how prison authorities gained access.

The guards claim in their submission to the court that a senior official wrote them a letter saying he was considering disciplinary action against them that could include dismissal. They said the letter alleged they had made "unauthorized public comment" on their department's work and "comment to the media without permission."

They were also accused of making offensive comments about Woodham and other senior officials.

The department declined yesterday to comment on the case.

Little said the guards acknowledged that their comments, which have since been taken down, were disparaging, but they were only meant to be shared with each other.


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