Gag orders are violations of workers’ whistleblowing and free speech rights
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:
October 23, 2020
WASHINGTON – Last week a senior official in the Department of Homeland Security attempted to chill potential whistleblowers when he warned agency employees in a directive that unauthorized disclosures could be in violation of agency policy and federal law, so they should carefully handle “all classified, controlled unclassified, and draft information.”
In response, yesterday Government Accountability Project and the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) National Citizenship and Immigration Services Council 119 jointly sent a letter to DHS noting that the communications constituted an unlawful gag order, because the blanket ban on unauthorized disclosures failed to include statutorily mandated language informing employees that their whistleblower rights supersede any non-disclosure restrictions.
The latest actions mirror past attempts by DHS and other federal agencies to illegally attempt to prevent employees from speaking out in fear of violating agency policy or being reported by their colleagues. Government Accountability Project and AFGE Council 119 together challenged a similarly illegal directive issued in November 2019 to USCIS employees threatening adverse action for “unauthorized disclosures” after whistleblowers and union members were exercising their legal rights to communicate with Congress and the press. All of these gag orders violate the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act and appropriations laws. The DHS directive to require employee communications to be reviewed by an internal body and disclose who they communicate with prior to external release also violates the First Amendment and long-standing precedent limiting prior restraint on speech.
Tom Devine, Legal Director at Government Accountability Project, said,
Whether through the constitution, Whistleblower Protection Act or appropriations laws, this blanket prior restraint is flat out illegal and incompatible with our democracy. The violation is not a gray area for judgment calls. As a law enforcement agency, DHS needs to end a pattern of gags that are illegal from top to bottom of the rule of law.
Danielle Spooner, President of the AFGE National CIS Council 119, which represents some 14,000 employees of US Citizenship and Immigration Services, a component agency of DHS,” said:
Federal Employees have taken an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic. They play a vital role in ensuring that the government remains true to the public trust. It is their duty to blow the whistle on waste, fraud, abuse and unlawful actions so the American people can hold our leaders accountable. If left unchallenged, this action by the Department of Homeland Security will deter employees from reporting wrongdoing — and will damage morale by creating a climate of fear and mistrust within the workforce.
Government Accountability Project and the American Federation of Government Employees requested DHS immediately reissue a corrective communication to department employees reminding them of their right to make protected whistleblower disclosures without fear of retaliatory personnel actions. Employees are in the best position to witness illegality and abuses that undermine the mission of DHS to protect the nation from a host of serious threats. It is essential to the public interest that employees are not chilled from exercising their well-established legal rights to blow the whistle.
Contact: Andrew Harman, Government Accountability Project Communications Director firstname.lastname@example.org 202.457.0034 x156
Andrew Huddleston, AFGE Communications Director email@example.com 202.639.6431
Government Accountability Project is the nation’s leading whistleblower protection organization. Through litigating whistleblower cases, publicizing concerns and developing legal reforms, Government Accountability Project’s mission is to protect the public interest by promoting government and corporate accountability. Founded in 1977, Government Accountability Project is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C.
AFGE Council 119 is the exclusive representative of 13,500 unionized employees of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration services. They are affiliated with the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest union representing federal workers, representing 700,000 workers in the federal government and the government of the District of Columbia.