Feds can legally protest -- but keep your job out of it
- By Nathan Abse
- Jun 10, 2020
Tens of thousands of Americans have participated in street protests in recent weeks -- and many continue to do so -- after the police killing of George Floyd, an unarmed African American man suspected of passing a counterfeit $20 bill at a convenience store.
Floyd’s death, part of a pattern in which black men in custody die at more than twice the rate of white men, has sparked the biggest explosion of raw emotion and political action on race in decades.
Many federal employees are part of this wave -- exercising their First Amendment rights to free speech, free assembly and public complaint “to petition the government for a redress of grievances,” as the Constitution puts it. Over the coming months, heated debates will continue -- some of it in the form of street protest -- and a new article in GovExec reminds federal employees that they have the same rights of expression as other Americans.
There are caveats, of course, in the form of laws aimed at protecting the integrity of federal jobs. As most feds know, under the Hatch Act, the right of feds to political speech in electoral politics is somewhat restricted: In short, they must keep their federal job strictly separate from political activism. Similarly, when they are protesting, they must be off-duty, out of uniform and without any identifier that might imply they are operating in an official capacity. Further, federal employees may not use a government vehicle getting to and from any public protest or event. The federal courts generally hold that federal employees have the right to express themselves on any “matter of public importance” outside of the workplace or the trappings of their federal job.
The piece offers additional recommendations -- for example, how to manage politics in social media as well as the necessity of employees keeping their political opinions separate from their work role, if any, as a supervisor or manager.