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Your Right to Petition the Government

Thursday, December 1, 2016

(National Federation of Federal Employees)

Under the 1st Amendment to the Constitution, citizens of the United States have the right to “petition the government for a redress of grievances.” Citizens do not lose their Constitutional rights when they become employees of the federal government. Congress has further protected those rights under 5 U.S.C. 7211, which states “the right of employees, individually or collectively, to petition Congress or a member of Congress . . . may not be interfered with or denied.

 

As employee representatives, we are always careful to ensure that we do not ask you to do something that violates law or regulation. We caution employees not to contact Congress using a government computer and not to forward emails asking others to contact Congress to a government email address. This is to make sure employees are fully compliant with “anti-lobbying” statutes that are arguably applicable to such activities.

 

The Hatch Act is frequently confused with “anti-lobbying” statutes, but the two are very different. The Hatch Act prohibits certain activities related to partisan political elections. It has nothing to do with lobbying, or, as the 1st Amendment and 5 U.S.C. 7211 address, with petitioning your government for a redress of your grievances. To make sure of this, we contacted the Office of Special Counsel (OSC, responsible for enforcement of the Hatch Act) for an advisory opinion during the successful 2012 petition drive to make temporary seasonal firefighters eligible for federal health insurance coverage. OSC said that the Hatch Act “would not prohibit U.S. Forest Service employees from advocating for a nonpartisan issue... When participating in such nonpartisan advocacy, we caution that you should not engage in any fundraising for a candidate, party, or political organization and, if any activities occur while on duty or in a federal building, to avoid anything that is directed at a partisan candidate, political party, or partisan organization.” See http://www.change.org/petitions/give-health-care-to-firefighters-who-battle-wildfires for the opinion in its entirety (scroll down past the petition text).

 

Although the Hatch Act does not apply to advocacy on non-partisan issues, “anti-lobbying” statutes such as 18 U.S.C. 1913 may apply. These statutes prohibit the “use of appropriated funds” to influence Congress or the public. It is unclear whether these statutes affect your rights under 5 U.S.C. 7211, but at the very least they do not prohibit your right to speak or lobby as a private citizen (on your own time and your own dime), including signing a petition, sending a letter, or calling a Congressional office on a non-partisan issue that affects your workplace. And, unlike the Hatch Act, they do not place any restrictions on where you may do so. 

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