A political rights boost for public servants

Kyodo

The Supreme Court has expanded the scope of political action allowed for government employees in a ruling over whether off-duty deliveries of Japanese Communist Party newspapers by two public servants should be subject to the legal ban on such activities.

The focus of the case is on how the court balanced freedom of expression and the application of criminal charges against government employees who are banned by the National Public Service Law from engaging in political activities.

It is the first ruling by the Supreme Court on this issue and could represent an endorsement of freedom of political activities based on the concept of freedom of expression.

“The freedom of expression is an important right that underpins democracy, and a ban on political activities should be restricted to the necessary minimum,” the Supreme Court’s Second Petty Bench said in the ruling, which was released Friday.

“Banned activities should be limited to those that may be substantively acknowledged as being liable to impair the political neutrality (of a person),” it said.

As criteria, the ruling included criteria that should be applied, such as whether the public employee is in a managerial position, what duties fall on this person, whether the worker is given discretionary powers, whether the activity was carried out while on duty or whether the activity is construed by others as being done by a public employee. The ruling said these criteria should not be considered inclusive.

Criminal penalties should not be imposed if the person’s actions do not fall into any of these categories, it said.

The ruling turned down appeals by one of the defendants and prosecutors.

It confirmed the acquittal of Akio Horikoshi, a 59-year-old former employee of the Social Insurance Agency, and a ¥100,000 fine imposed on Shinichi Ujibashi, 64, an assistant division chief in the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry.

The ruling said Horikoshi “was not in a managerial position and did not have any discretion in his duties or powers,” while Ujibashi “was in a position where he could influence many other employees.”

The 1947 National Public Service Law bans government officials from engaging in any political acts specified under rules of the National Personnel Authority. Activities subject to the NPA rules include issuing, editing and handing out papers that are the organs of political parties or groups.

It sets penalties of up to three years in prison or a fine of up to ¥1 million.

Tadayoshi Ichida, head of the JCP secretariat, expressed regret over Friday’s ruling, saying his party had called for a Supreme Court decision declaring the law and NPA rules unconstitutional for violating freedom of association and expression.