Feds Allowed to Talk About Israel-Hamas War!
Sorry, Senator Rubio.
As a federal government employee, I was a bit confused when I saw the Government Executive headline “Guidance spells out when and how feds can discuss the Israel-Hamas war,” as it never occurred to me that there was any question about the matter.
Federal employees can discuss the Israel-Hamas war in the workplace and can even express their opinions on it, according to new guidance from the independent agency that oversees the law limiting civil servants’ political speech, though they still face some restrictions.
Agency workers are permitted to voice their political opinions under the Hatch Act—and protected in doing so—the Office of Special Counsel spelled out in its new guidance this week, including on the current war Israel and Hamas are waging. OSC said employees can speak out on issues, such as supporting or opposing a ceasefire, so long as they do not do so in the context of favoring or disapproving of any particular political party. They can, of course, advocate for or oppose political parties for their positions on the ceasefire so long as they are not on duty, in the workplace or acting in an official capacity.
Which is pretty much the policy on speaking about any topic under the sun. So, why the guidance?
As the conflict has created political firestorms across the country, federal workplaces have drawn particular attention as employees have increasingly spoken out. An anonymous group of more than 400 political appointees and career employees in the Biden administration recently put forward an open letter calling for a ceasefire and criticizing the U.S. government’s resolute support of Israel in the face of thousands of civilian deaths in Gaza, as reported by NBC News. That led Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., to write a letter to OSC asking it investigate any potential Hatch Act violations regarding the ceasefire call, suggesting it could have been drafted in coordination with political entities in an unlawful manner.
“If this suspicion were to be true, it would constitute major violation of the Hatch Act, which places certain prohibitions on partisan political activities for federal employees while at work,” Rubio said.
The senator also asked a wide range of inspectors general to uncover who at their agencies signed the letter, publicize the names and investigate any wrongdoing.
Granting that I’m employed as a college professor under the Excepted Service and that speaking out on foreign policy issues is specifically protected—indeed, encouraged—as part of my professional remit, the notion that expressing a policy preference on a given issue constitutes “partisan activity” is absurd. That’s especially true in this case, where a Democratic President is undertaking a policy that’s likely more popular with Republicans than his own base.
Regardless . . .
OSC said it received “numerous questions” regarding the restrictions the Hatch Act places on federal employees’ speech regarding the war between Israel and Gaza. The agency rejected that signing a letter such as the one Rubio cited would itself constitute a violation.
As an example of acceptable activity, OSC said employees are permitted to say while at work, “I support/oppose a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas and encourage everyone I know to write their senators and representatives to build support for that position.” They could similarly say they support or oppose the administration’s position. Employees would violate the Hatch Act if they said at work a ceasefire should occur and they therefore call on their colleagues to vote out any lawmakers, or President Biden, who disagree.
“If an employee’s conduct and expressions are issue-based and not political activity, then the Hatch Act does not apply to that conduct and those expressions,” OSC said. “If it is political activity, then the Hatch Act prohibits employees from engaging in that activity while on duty or in the federal workplace.”
Employees are also welcome to attend rallies and demonstrations calling for or opposing a ceasefire, for example, so long as they are off duty.
This seems simple enough. There are more than 2 million Federal civilian employees. It would be absurd to expect them to give up their fundamental right to speech as a condition of service.* We should, however, expect them to vigorously carry out the policy decisions of the President, Congress, and other duly constituted policymakers.
*The strictures for military personnel, particularly commissioned officers, are a little higher for historical reasons. They exist under a chain of command and there are “good order and discipline” concerns. But even they retain the right to offer opinions on matters of policy.