Court: Union Political Messages Not Allowed In Federal Buildings

July 16, 2003 ( - Union bulletin boards in post offices are not exempt from a federal law that bars political activity in government facilities.

The US 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a lower court’s decision, finding that the hanging of such a poster by New York-based US Postal Service employees during the 2000 presidential election campaign constituted political activity.   Further, the appellate court rejected constitutional arguments by the postal workers’ union that such bulletin boards were limited public forums subject to First Amendment protection, according to a report by the New York Law Journal.

“[T]he pertinent regulations define political activity in a way that clearly includes the [American Postal Workers Union’s] poster,” Circuit Judge Ralph Winter wrote for the unanimous appellate panel in Burrus v. Vegliante , 02-6257.

Additionally, the court found the interior post office work areas to be nonpublic forums, noting that union bulletin boards are open only to the union and were restricted by the union for “suitable notices and literature.” This restriction “by any definition surely excludes material posted in violation of federal law,” the court ruled.

Hatch Act

The Hatch Act, adopted in 1939, governs p olitical activity in federal workplaces.   Originally, the act was intended to limit the political activities of federal employees so as to prevent coercion of federal employees in using the civil service to build political machines.

Federal employees were barred both in and out of the workplace from taking active roles in political management or political campaigns, until 1993 when the Hatch Act was amended.   Following the amendment, government workers, with a number of exceptions, were allowed to take part in political activities off duty while maintaining on-duty restrictions.

Political Propaganda

The questionable posters were created by the American Postal Workers Union and mailed to 27,000 union members in addition to being tacked up on the union’s bulletin board.   They compared the platforms of both Al Gore and George Bush during the last presidential election, suggesting that Gore held positions more favorable to postal workers.

The Postal Service asked the union to remove the posters under provision in the Hatch Act.   However, Union President William Burros refused and sued after the Postal Service issued an “advisory opinion” suggesting that employees who hung posters could be disciplined.

The union conceded that posters were placed on bulletin boards by on-duty postal employees, but argued that such actions were not prohibited political activity under either the original or amended version of the Hatch Act.   However, the appeals court found the pre-1993 Hatch Act had in fact listed as political activities the displaying of political pictures and badges and other activities not generally undertaken in coordination with candidates or parties. The court also found that the legislative record of the 1993 amendment clearly showed Congress’ intent to restrict on-duty political displays.

The case is Burrus v. Vegliante , 02-6257.