A union representing hundreds of thousands of government employees announced Monday that it filed an emergency motion in federal court accusing the Office of Special Counsel of "chilling the free speech rights" of government workers by barring them from speaking out about President Donald Trump's impeachment.
"We view it as unconstitutional restraint of free speech."
—Everett Kelly, American Federation of Government Employees
The motion filed Friday by the American Federation of Government Employees and AFGE Local 2578 called on the U.S. District Court of Maryland to immediately suspend 2018 guidance (pdf) issued by the Office of Special Counsel prohibiting federal workers from expressing views about the impeachment process while on the job.
The Office of Special Counsel is an independent federal agency led by Henry Kerner, a Trump appointee.
"The Trump impeachment is the major news story dominating the headlines," AFGE's national secretary-treasurer Everett Kelly said in a statement Monday. "For federal employees, [Trump] is top management, and it is absurd to think impeachment of the boss will not be discussed at lunch and at the water cooler."
"We view it as unconstitutional restraint of free speech," added Kelly.
— AFGE (@AFGENational) January 28, 2020
The Office of Special Counsel said in its guidance that the Hatch Act bars government employees from speaking out about the impeachment process.
AFGE insists the agency is misinterpreting the 1939 law, which makes it illegal for federal employees to engage in political campaign activities. Kelly said speaking out about impeachment would constitute a "legislative act not related to electoral activity as defined under the Hatch Act."
Alleging the restrictions illegally silenced government employees who wished to express their views about the impeachment proceedings against Trump, AFGE and non-partisan government watchdog American Oversight sued the OSC over the guidance last August.
"The chilling impact of these rules has only gotten worse as the question of whether the president should be impeached moved from a speculative debate to a reality," Austin Evers, executive director of American Oversight, said in a statement. "Government employees have a right to speak about this historic matter."
"We are particularly concerned that OSC has taken no action against high-profile defenders of the president—such as counselor Kellyanne Conway—who, from their government perches, have weighed in against impeachment while ordinary civil servants who might hold different views must refrain from speaking out or risk losing their jobs," said Evers.