Do Government Employees Have Freedom Of Speech?

Ran across this comment I posted to GovLoop on April 22, 2013, that was picked up by the Washington Post with a mention. Nearly two years later the principles still hold up pretty well. 

It’s a free country, everybody has freedom of speech, and it is statistically impossible that you will agree with every single thing your agency, another agency or the government does as a whole.

You want to make the government work better. And every day people take to social media, face-to-face conversation and everything in between to say what they think.

Plus, honest conversation promotes transparency and therefore credibility. To my mind it shows the public that we care.

However, there are times when speaking your mind may not be the best choice.

Here are five factors I use to guide and sometimes limit my public comments:

  • Focus on the general (rules and best practices) not the specific.
  • Remember that I am in a sense a representative of my Agency’s brand (and the brand of government) whether I am speaking in a personal capacity or not. This is true of any employee of any organization.
  • Stick to designated roles and responsibilities – in my Agency only Public Affairs or designated experts on specific topics are authorized to explain or comment on what we do publicly, and to address controversy.
  • Do not do anything that may interfere with mission performance. In some Agencies this is written into a code of conduct.
  • Confidentiality–don’t talk about things that are nonpublic information.

Since then: a few updates that can all be boiled down to “good judgment”:

  • There is no foolproof decision filter for any of this; the answer is often “it depends.”
  • Given the low trust that the public has in government, I actually think it reinforces government credibility when employees themselves are respectfully critical.
  • There are going to be times that all of us go out on a limb because of an issue we care about. We should never be so cautious and so guarded that we forget to be human, as long as we are appropriate, constructive and follow the law. One good middle of the road approach is to focus, rather than taking on everything. Another is to limit the audience for your past personal posts as they become irrelevant.
  • Social media is increasingly making it impossible to distinguish professional from personal, and we are really going to have to think through the norms that will dually make us trustworthy in a social media setting while also maintaining a distinct public persona as a civil servant – this is a very complicated row to hoe.
  • It is always important to choose your words carefully, and also to remember that whether you intend it or not, or have a disclaimer or not, if you are known as a federal employee then you may be seen as speaking on behalf of the government. This is particularly so if you inhabit a visible position, a high ranking position, or a position where you engage in outreach on the same platform where you speak in a personal capacity.

I am a deep believer in our civil right to freedom of speech and in my mind and heart I know it ultimately moves us forward. At the same time, I am also a believer that when you work for any organization you are ethically bound not to get in the way of its operations. And we do live in the real world, a world where social media has effectively erased the line between professional and personal.

In my view, the ideal balance is to present yourself always authentically, but diplomatically.

Everyone feels strongly about things. You don’t want to seem like the kind of person who’s forever hiding, but you also don’t want to make it impossible for others to work with you.

Note: All opinions are always my own. Nothing here constitutes official advice or agency guidance, and I am not a lawyer. When in doubt, please seek the advice of a competent legal professional.

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