BLM materials not political, permitted at work, special counsel says
- By Nathan Abse
- Jul 20, 2020
The Office of Special Counsel has clarified the federal government’s take on federal employees having or displaying Black Lives Matter paraphernalia in the federal workplace.
Its finding? BLM is not a political organization -- or even linked to a single such entity at all -- and so literature or other materials displaying the organization’s name or slogans is not, in itself, a violation of the Hatch Act, which restricts federal employee conduct with respect to partisan political activity.
The office issued the new guidance both on BLM and a related organization or set of organizations, the Black Lives Matter Global Network (BLMGN).
“BLM is a ‘hot-button’ issue and both politically and culturally salient,” the OSC wrote in its guidance, updated and released July 14. “But BLM terminology is issue-based, not a campaign slogan.”
“Therefore, using BLM terminology, without more, is not political activity,” OSC concluded. “BLMGN does not meet any of the criteria for classification as a partisan political group. Therefore, BLMGN is not a partisan political group, and employees are not prohibited from wearing or displaying BLMGN paraphernalia in the workplace.”
In exploring the history behind the names, the OSC guidance called BLM a “social movement” -- something that came into being “organically,” after the phrase became widely used by protesters responding to the killings of several African Americans under disputed circumstances and often perceived flawed investigations or other criminal justice proceedings.
The term originated, the OSC document said, in 2013 and 2014, arising in the aftermath of the killing of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin and the court’s exoneration of the shooter, George Zimmerman.
“The phrase ‘Black Lives Matter’ then became a rallying cry for protesters and organizations seeking to raise awareness of, and respond to, issues associated with racism in the United States,” OSC wrote. “BLM is thus an umbrella term for a constellation of ideas, objectives, and groups. There is no ‘leader’ of the BLM movement.”
Further, OSC found, since BLM and its various advocates are not attached to any particular political party, there is no partisan taint in the use of the term or materials bearing its name.
OSC explicitly noted that its guidance only clears BLM materials and activity with respect to the Hatch Act. Other federal laws or regulations governing federal employees that might be applicable are not included in the guidance.