UNITED STATES, et al. v. NATIONAL TREASURY EMPLOYEES UNION et al. | The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression

Case Overview

Legal Principle at Issue

Whether the government can prohibit federal employees from receiving compensation for writing and speaking about matters not related to their employment.

Action

Affirmed and reversed (or vacated) in part and remanded. Petitioning party did not receive a favorable disposition.

Facts/Syllabus

In 1989, Congress adopted legislation that, among other things, prohibited all governmental employees from receiving compensation for their speaking and writing. Lower level executive branch employees who in the past had received compensation for writing and speaking on subjects unrelated to their employment challenged the law, claiming that it unconstitutionally infringed on their First Amendment rights. The district court and appellate court agreed.

In Pickering v. Board of Ed. of Township High School Dist., 391 U.S. 563 (1968), the U.S. Supreme Court held that Congress may impose restraints on job-related speech of public employees, even if these restraints would be unconstitutional if applied to non-public employees. When these restraints are challenged, courts must balance the employee's interest in commenting upon matters of public concern against the government's interest in promoting the efficiency of the public services that it performs through its employees.

Importance of Case

The Court reaffirmed two important principles. First, a denial of compensation for speech places a significant burden on the speaker. Second, the government's right to regulate the speech of its employees, while broad, is not without limits. Because the government could not produce any evidence that the ban on honoraria, at least as applied to speech unrelated to employment, was necessary to prevent the recurrence of past misconduct, the Court found that the employees' First Amendment interests outweighed the efficiency interests cited by the government.

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