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Free Speech for Government Employees

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com.

Here’s the First Amendment, in full: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

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Peter Van Buren
Peter Van Buren spent a year in Iraq as a State Department Foreign Service Officer serving as Team Leader for two...

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Those beautiful words, almost haiku-like, are the sparse poetry of the American democratic experiment. The Founders purposely wrote the First Amendment to read broadly, and not like a snippet of tax code, in order to emphasize that it should encompass everything from shouted religious rantings to eloquent political criticism. Go ahead, reread it aloud at this moment when the government seems to be carving out an exception to it large enough to drive a tank through.

As the occupiers of Zuccotti Park, like those pepper-sprayed at UC Davis or the Marine veteran shot in Oakland, recently found out, the government’s ability to limit free speech, to stopper the First Amendment, to undercut the right to peaceably assemble and petition for redress of grievances, is perhaps the most critical issue our republic can face. If you were to write the history of the last decade in Washington, it might well be a story of how, issue by issue, the government freed itself from legal and constitutional bounds when it came to torture, the assassination of US citizens, the holding of prisoners without trial or access to a court of law, the illegal surveillance of American citizens and so on. In the process, it has entrenched itself in a comfortable shadowland of ever more impenetrable secrecy, while going after any whistleblower who might shine a light in.

Now, it also seems to be chipping away at the most basic American right of all, the right of free speech, starting with that of its own employees. As is often said, the easiest book to stop is the one that is never written; the easiest voice to staunch is the one that is never raised.

It’s true that, over the years, government in its many forms has tried to claim that you lose your free speech rights when you, for example, work for a public school, or join the military. In dealing with school administrators who sought to silence a teacher for complaining publicly that not enough money was being spent on academics versus athletics, or generals who wanted to stop enlisted men and women from blogging, the courts have found that any loss of rights must be limited and specific. As Jim Webb wrote when still secretary of the Navy, “A citizen does not give up his First Amendment right to free speech when he puts on a military uniform, with small exceptions.”

Free speech is considered so basic that the courts have been wary of imposing any limits at all. The famous warning by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes about not falsely shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater shows just how extreme a situation must be for the Supreme Court to limit speech. As Holmes put it in his definition: “The question in every case is whether the words used…are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent.” That’s a high bar indeed.

The Government v. Morris Davis

Does a newspaper article from November 2009, a few hundred well-reasoned words that appeared in the conservative Wall Street Journal, concluding with these mild sentences, meet Justice Holmes’s high mark?

Double standards don't play well in Peoria. They won't play well in Peshawar or Palembang either. We need to work to change the negative perceptions that exist about Guantanamo and our commitment to the law. Formally establishing a legal double standard will only reinforce them.

Morris Davis got fired from his research job at the Library of Congress for writing that article and a similar letter to the editor of the Washington Post. (The irony of being fired for exercising free speech while employed at Thomas Jefferson’s library evidently escaped his bosses.) With the help of the ACLU, Davis demanded his job back. On January 8, 2010, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the Library of Congress on his behalf. In March 2011 a federal court ruled that the suit could go forward.

The case is being heard this month. Someday, it will likely define the free speech rights of federal employees and so determine the quality of people who will make up our government. We citizens vote for the big names, but it’s the millions of lower-ranked, unelected federal employees who decide by their actions how the laws are carried out (or ignored) and the Constitution upheld (or disregarded).

Morris Davis is not some dour civil servant. Prior to joining the Library of Congress, he spent more than twenty-five years as an Air Force colonel. He was, in fact, the chief military prosecutor at Guantánamo and showed enormous courage in October 2007 when he resigned from that position and left the Air Force. Davis had stated he would not use evidence obtained through torture back in 2005. When a torture advocate was named his boss in 2007, Davis quit rather than face the inevitable order to reverse his position.

In December 2008, Davis went to work as a researcher at the Library of Congress in the Foreign Affairs, Defense and Trade Division. None of his work was related to Guantánamo. He was not a spokesperson for, or a public face of, the library. He was respected at work. Even the people who fired him do not contest that he did his “day job” as a researcher well.

On November 12, 2009, the day after his op-ed and letter appeared, Davis was told by his boss that the pieces had caused the library concern over his “poor judgment and suitability to serve…not consistent with 'acceptable service'"—as the letter of admonishment he received put the matter. It referred only to his op-ed and Washington Post letter, and said nothing about his work performance as a researcher. One week later, Davis was fired.

But Shouldn’t He Have Known Better Than to Write Something Political?

The courts have consistently supported the rights of the Ku Klux Klan to use extreme and hateful words, of the burners of books and of those who desecrate the American flag. All of that is considered “protected speech.” A commitment to real free speech means accepting the toughest cases, the most offensive things people can conceive of, as the price of a free society.

The Library of Congress does not restrict its employees from writing or speaking, so Davis broke no rules. Nor, theoretically at least, do other government agencies like the CIA and the State Department restrict employees from writing or speaking, even on matters of official concern, although they do demand prior review for such things as the possible misuse of classified material.

Clearly, such agency review processes have sometimes been used as a de facto method of prior restraint. The CIA, for example, has been accused of using indefinite security reviews to effectively prevent a book from being published. The Department of Defense has also wielded exaggerated claims of classified material to block books.

Since at least 1968, there has, however, been no broad prohibition against government employees writing about political matters or matters of public concern. In 1968, the Supreme Court decided a seminal public employee First Amendment case, Pickering v. Board of Education. It ruled that school officials had violated the First Amendment rights of teacher Marvin Pickering when they fired him for writing a letter to his local paper criticizing the allocation of money between academics and athletics.

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