Any employee can get in trouble for personal blogging on company time, but U.S. government workers, as one NASA employee has discovered, can get into a special kind of legal trouble if they also write about politics. They risk violating a 1939 law called the Hatch Act, which requires federal employees to keep their jobs and political activity separate.
A National Aeronautics and Space Administration employee was suspended for 180 days for “numerous” blog posts about politics, sending “partisan e-mails,” as well as soliciting for political contributions, according to an announcement last week by the U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC). The employee wasn’t identified.
The intent of the Hatch Act is to prohibit “the use of the mechanism of government from influencing the outcome of an election,” said James Mitchell, an OSC spokesman. If a person is seeking money for candidates on company time and on company equipment, “that person might as well have been soliciting within the office,” he said.
The suspension was the result of an agreement reached with NASA by the special counsel. The employee, whose suspension began March 30, could have been fired from his job.
The OSC is investigating similar cases at other agencies, Mitchell said. In some instances, the practice may be due to intra-office e-mails about particular candidates.
“We have a lot of cases open right now in this election year,” Mitchell said. The NASA case, which involved a mid-level employee at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, may be a defining one, he said.
In a statement announcing the action, Special Counsel Scott Bloch said in earlier times, a Hatch Act violation may have involved wearing a campaign button in the office. “Today, modern office technology multiplies the opportunities for employees to abuse their positions and, as in this serious case, to be penalized, even removed from their job, with just a few clicks of a mouse,” he said.
Federal employees who blog while at work about their dating life, for instance, aren’t risking a Hatch Act violation unless they are dating a candidate. Whether they get in trouble for sending out personal e-mails or blogging at work depends on the policies set by government agencies and whether those agencies monitor workers.
The OSC doesn’t monitor workplace Internet use and Mitchell said the NASA case likely was the result of a complaint.
NASA allows “limited personal use” of IT equipment by its employees, provided it doesn’t interfere with its missions, affect employee productivity or violate any ethical standards or law. It specifically prohibits partisan political activity.
A federal pamphlet about the Hatch Act published in 2005 lists some examples of prohibited activities but doesn’t mention blogging.