The new guidelines are prompting First Amendment concerns among workers and the unions that represent them.
Federal workers, unions that represent them, and watchdog groups are condemning new guidelines put out by the Office of Special Counsel that seem to restrict their First Amendment freedoms in the workplace when it comes to whether they can disagree with President Donald Trump, or even discuss the possibility of his impeachment.
The memo released late last month by the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) (not to be conflated with the Russia investigation being led by special counsel Robert Mueller) urges workers to avoid talking in the workplace about topics relating to approval or disapproval of the president, which is not an uncommon guideline for the OSC to promote in the past. What’s different now, however, is a line in the memo that many say is too broad, urging employees against making “strong criticism or praise of a presidential administration’s policies and actions.”
The line could potentially interfere with the First Amendment rights of workers in the federal government, or even disrupt their regular work, as it’s the duty of some workers to express their concerns about potential negative side effects of federal policies from the executive branch, according to reporting from the Guardian.
“This guidance is a broad reach that employees may find confusing. It could unnecessarily have a chilling effect on employees’ first amendment free speech,” said National Treasury Employees Union President Tony Reardon.
Kathleen Clark, a former government ethics lawyer and current law professor at Washington University, agreed.
“This might not sit well with some in the federal government, but the first amendment protects this kind of political speech even when the government would prefer silence,” she said in a recent op-ed.
“The OSC needs to stand down and recognize that the Hatch Act permits advocacy for and against Trump’s impeachment,” Clark also said in her opinion piece.
Even on the question of discussing impeachment, experts believe the new memo guidelines are too restrictive. A federal employee who has ample evidence of malfeasance by a member of the executive branch, and who further believes that impeachment may be warranted from the viewpoint of their work in the federal government, may be unable to bring their concerns forward under the new rules.
“[T]here is a difference between advocating that an official should (or should not) be elected and advocating that an official did (or did not) commit treason or high crimes and misdemeanors under the Constitution,” executive director of American Oversight Austin Evers said, per reporting from the Washington Post.
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