Haifa mayor Dr. Einat Kalisch-Rotem informed the municipal Library Services director that a librarian placing a Gay Pride Flag on her desk in the library is possibly inappropriate. The librarian in question had put a Pride Flag on her desk after Shira Banki (z”l) was murdered at the Jerusalem Pride Parade four years ago in order to protest homophobia. After hearing the librarian answer a child’s question about the flag, one library visitor complained to the library director. The director brought the complaint to the Municipal Library Services director in the Education Branch of the municipality, who in turn asked the mayor. The mayor responded: “In my opinion, when expressing our personal opinions in our workplaces, especially those that provide services to the general population, public servants must be very sensitive. Generally, we should try to refrain from such expression. In our private homes, we can do whatever we like, but in a public place that serves a wide audience, such expression could be deemed inappropriate.”
On 18.7.2019, ACRI appealed to the mayor and requested that she change her position. Adv. Dan Yakir, ACRI’s Chief Legal Counsel, noted that normally public workers are restricted from two forms of political expression. The first is a prohibition on publicly criticizing government or Public Authority's policies, and the second prohibits expressing support for or critique of political parties. The High Court of Justice, in its interpretation of the law, has limited these broad restrictions, saying that freedom of expression can only be restricted if expressions fall under one of the above two categories and there is a high probability that such expressions harm either the function or service being provided or public trust in the neutrality of public workers.
He added that this is neither a case of critiquing the municipality's policies, nor of party affiliation, nor does it raise concerns about the function of the public servant, nor public trust in the services provided. To the contrary, the position expressed by the employee by placing a Pride Flag on her desk is an expression that conforms to Haifa municipality policies. The municipality has committed to supporting equal rights for the LGTBQ community and opposing homophobia. Adv. Yakir added that by placing this, or any other symbol of the LGBTQ community, on her desk, it is likely the employee was not only expressing a political opinion, but also expressing an important and intrinsic part of her personal identity and community. Therefore, preventing her from placing such symbols on her desk is in direct violation of her rights to freedom of expression, personal identity, and culture.
Following the incident, the Haifa Legal Services published a position paper stating: “Employees have the right to place photos, mugs, ornamental items and the like on their personal desk in their personal workspace as long as said items are consistent with official municipality policies.” Following this response, ACRI requested that Dina Zilber, the Deputy Attorney General of the State of Israel, intervene. In the request, we noted that the municipality’s position is invalid. In our opinion, a public servant is permitted to freely express his- or herself in the workplace, regardless of whether or not those expressions happen to align with the opinions and views of elected officials in a specific coalition at a given time. A municipality worker is permitted to place a Pride Flag on her desk even if coalition members are homophobic, opposed to the Pride Parade, or simply neutral.
On 19.8.2019, the Haifa Mayor sent an email prohibiting municipal workers who work in reception from putting any political image or item on their desks until the Deputy Attorney General publicizes her opinion on the topic. Following this email, ACRI has again urged Dina Zilber to intervene in the affair and declare authoritatively that a public employer cannot improperly restrict a public employee’s freedom of speech.
For further information (Hebrew)