University staff must be free to criticise senior management and expose wrongdoing without fear of dismissal or disciplinary action, the European Court of Human Rights has ruled.
In a major ruling that confirms the right to freedom of expression at work, the Strasbourg court found that a professor at a Latvian university had been unfairly sacked after he spoke out against alleged nepotism, plagiarism, corruption and mismanagement in his department.
Andris Rubins was head of the department of dermatological and venereal diseases at Riga Stradiņš University when he went public with his allegations in March 2010.
This action followed a series of emails he sent to the university’s rector, which concluded with Professor Rubins stating his intention to expose various malpractices unless the institution reversed its decision to merge his department with another, which would have abolished his post.
Just over six weeks later he was informed that his contract had been terminated because of a breach of “good morals”. This decision was upheld in 2012 by a Latvian court, which found he had shown no loyalty towards his employer and had acted without integrity in “threats” to the rector.
It stated that “a calm and positive atmosphere and a respectful attitude among colleagues best contribute to achieving constructive dialogue”, and said Professor Rubins should have kept his concerns within the university.
However, a majority of judges at the European court found that his dismissal amounted to an unjustified interference in Professor Rubins’ right to freedom of expression and violated Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights, which guarantees this right.
Employees did owe their employers a duty of loyalty and discretion, but in this case the truthfulness of Professor Rubins’ claims had not been challenged and they were in the public interest, the judges said.
The ruling, published on 13 January, may provide added protection for whistleblowers in the UK, as some matters are not covered within the list of qualifying disclosures under current employment law, according to Makbool Javaid, partner and employment law specialist at Simons Muirhead and Burton.
The court ordered the respondent, the Latvian government, to pay Professor Rubins €10,280 (£7,300) in compensation and legal costs, although it did not uphold his claim for damages of almost €159,000. But two of the seven Strasbourg judges dissented, saying that he had been sacked for attempted blackmail of the rector, rather than for going public with his accusations.
They supported the Latvian court’s assertion that Professor Rubins, who now holds a post at the University of Latvia, had gone public for selfish reasons, rather than because of an interest in protecting democracy. They also criticised the court’s interference in the university’s management of its affairs.
“An academic institution is, in principle, entitled to exercise fully its freedom of taking employment decisions, within the limits of its autonomy as laid down in domestic law,” the dissenting judges said.