Gag clauses for CA state workers, public employees violate free speech rights

From today’s Sacramento Bee:

Employees at a California tax agency started to suspect something was up when a compliance officer emailed everyone a reminder not talk with the media one morning in March.

Later that day, CBS Sacramento aired a story on new “RIOT” buttons that had been installed in elevators in the California Department of Tax and Fee Administration building, alarming some employees. The story included interviews with a few workers outside the department’s building at 450 N Street, which has become notorious for maintenance problems.

“The general message of the policy is that when staff receives inquiries from reporters, they should refer them to their supervisor or manager as those inquiries are handled by CDTFA by what is now called our External Affairs Division,” said an email from Program and Compliance Bureau Chief James Dahlen.

Yet those types of blanket restrictions on government employees’ speech are unconstitutional, according to a recently published paper from the Florida-based Brechner Center for Freedom of Information.

“People don’t forfeit their constitutional rights, including the right of free expression, simply by accepting government employment,” the paper says, citing two Supreme Court decisions from 1967.

Such “gag” policies are nonetheless common, affecting public employees from local schools and police departments to state and federal agencies, according to the paper.

California state government is no exception. Many, while not all, state departments have policies instructing employees to refrain from talking to the media and to refer all questions to public information officers, even when the employees are experts on the topics they’re being asked about.

Read the complete article here.