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April 21, 2008

Government employees could be fired for blogging on their own time

Federal employees could be fired for blogging about politics with their personal computers, on their own time, Stephen Barr reports:

Blogging about politics at work falls into the don't-do category, but blogging from home may also get a federal employee in trouble.

Presidential campaign Web sites, for example, encourage supporters to create blogs on the site to advocate the candidate's positions. They also usually carry a link for campaign donations, and that can be trouble for a federal employee, even when using a home computer. The OSC may view the donate button as soliciting for political contributions, another no-no under the Hatch Act, and set off an investigation. [WaPo]

This passage is part of a longer story about how the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) has decided crack down on political activities of federal employees in advance of the election.

The Hatch Act restricts the political activities of federal, state, and local government officials. The rules are very complicated. Presidential employees confirmed by the senate can even engage in political activities on government time, in government facilities, as long as these aren't paid for with government money. However, appointees must not compel their subordinates to play along. 

Since the beginning of the Bush administration, the definition of electioneering has been very narrowly indeed, at least when it comes to Republicans helping Republicans. Karl Rove was allowed to make the rounds of 20 federal agencies, delivering regular PowerPoint presentations about how bureaucrats could help get Republicans elected. This went on for years. In fairness the OSC did investigate some of these allegations, but neither Rove nor the senior government employees who participated in these briefings has been sanctioned.

The highest-profile targets for Hatch investigation, Rove, Ken Mehlman, and Scott Jennings, all resigned before any action was taken. Proximately, Jennings was a casualty of the U.S. Attorney scandal. It's not clear how much influence the Hatch Act investigations by OSC and Rep. Henry Waxman's Oversight Committee had on the timing of Rove's exit.

According to Barr's story, government employees could be fined, suspended, or even fired for blogging at home, on their own time if their blogging takes place on a website associated with a presidential candidate. (Public policy grad student Isaac explains that Barr is talking specifically about employees who blog using software sponsored by presidential campaigns, such as McCain MySpace or MyBarack Obama.)

The law hasn't caught up to new technologies. It's not clear whether government employees are allowed to "friend" a candidate on Facebook, or leave a partisan comment on someone else's blog from the privacy of their own homes. If the problem is links soliciting campaign contributions, what happens if a federal employee posts non-electioneering content in a diary at DailyKos or some other site that has electioneering ads and links?

I predict that petty and tangential Hatch Act investigations will be disproportionately directed at Democratic-leaning government employees in the run-up to the elections.  (Barr notes that Hatch Act enforcements have been on the rise since 2000.) 

This is an empirical question, and I hope that I'm wrong. Maybe close scrutiny during this period will deter Hatch Act abuse.

If you are a government employee of any political persuasion who has been investigated or disciplined for blogging about politics outside of work, please email me. I want to hear your story.

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Comments

To be clear, it's not blogging in itself that would be a violation of the Hatch Act, but using blogging software on a campaign website (e.g., MyBarackObama and McCainSpace), which also has links to fundraising and other partisan activities.

I think federal employees should make an effort to dissociate themselves from partisan political activity, because the principle of a nonpartisan civil service is too dear to let go. (It would be best, of course, if Karl Rove, Lurita Doan, et al, were held more to account for their abuses, but let's not define deviancy down on that account.) I would go so far as to say "friending" a politician's candidate page on Facebook (though not their personal page) is too risky, in the absence of a ruling from OSC. Note, however, that ideological political activity (on choice or the environment, say) cannot and should not be prohibited under the Hatch Act, so I don't think it's an unreasonable restriction on federal employees' free speech rights.

What about Governors?

GW and Karl met with Jeb in his Tallahassee office in June 2000.

The reporter doesn't say that anyone has gotten in trouble for blogging from home on a webpage with a donation button.

Nor that the OSC has ruled that federal employees can get in trouble for that.

Just that the OSC "may" rule that way someday.

Please don't abuse the term "journalist" by using it. You are a commentator. Osc has been and continues to investigate Hatch Act violations and is still investigating the Rove briefings in almojst every federal agency.

That's the point. The rules aren't clear and the OSC has a lot of discretion. They may not need a specific ruling on, say, "friending" in order to enforce their interpretation of the existing rules.

I don't know if anyone has gotten in trouble with the OSC for blogging on their own time. That's what I'm trying to find out.

There are all kinds of interesting wrinkles here: For example, what if you are a federal employee with a diary at DailyKos or MyDD or RedState and that blog has ads or links that solicit contributions to candidates, even if your entries don't? What if a federal employee comments on someone else's blog and that blog has links or ads or electioneering content?

Mitt you seem upset with me.

Has anyone been sanctioned in connection with Rove and his PowerPoints?

What consequences could Rove face if the OSC determines that he violated the Hatch Act while he was a public employee, lo, these many months or years ago?

When do you expect a verdict on these questions?

Does the White House influence the timing of OSC investigations?

I'm a federal employee. I don't know how other branches of the federal government do things, but where I work it is made abundantly, repeatedly, and explicitly clear that anything done on a government computer is monitored and that they are absolutely not to be used for certain personal, business, or political purposes. We also get an email or two every election cycle about the Hatch Act, telling us not to wear political t-shirts, or solicit campaign contributions at work, etc.

People bend the rules slightly though. Like swinging a couple miles off course in a government car to pick up a gallon of milk to be taken home later, lots of folks do things like accessing their hotmail accounts, or writing a blog comment at work, though I generally don't. Probably all of us who work in natural resources for the fed, have used government email to forward things like Bush's bizarre fish quote (“I know the human being and fish can coexist peacefully.”). That's not strictly according to Hoyle, but fuck 'em. After all the Republipukes have done to us, we'll still abide by the spirit and letter of the Hatch Act, but we're not willing to be robots.

I've never heard of any federal employee being hounded for anything political done on a private computer off the clock, but I certainly wouldn't put it past our new masters to do so.

A friend of mine tells me that his superiors at NASA took serious umbrage at his commenting on Valleywag about the Google jets that are stored at a NASA facility in Mountain View, CA.

Among the problems with the warnings that were handed out were that he did it from his house, on his time, on his computer. Oh - and he's NOT a government employee, but a subcontractor.

The things he blogged about could be seen from public space - a 767 and parked out in the open.

Methinks something stinks to high heaven there.

Skunky Monkey -

NASA is the customer.

Someone who works in the private sector can anger a customer by writing negatively about the customer's practices. That isn't a Hatch Act issue.

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