Federal employees who are worrying that they may be faced with budget and workforce cuts at their agencies are finding creative ways to voice their dissent towards the Trump administration in ways that strive to avoid violating laws that could cost them their jobs.
Politico recently reported that among the tactics employed by federal workers include private, in-person meetings to organize, anonymous Twitter accounts, and encrypted messaging apps. One employee even said he was considering getting a “burner phone,” a pre-paid cell phone that can be disposed of easily to avoid being tracked.
The report in Politico said that a group of EPA employees were using Signal, an encrypted messaging app, to discuss what to do should the Trump administration attempt to undermine their agency’s mission. The EPA is reportedly one agency that could be facing some of the more significant cuts under President Trump (see Trump Plans to Cut EPA Workforce by as Much as 50%). And just late last week, legislation was introduced in the House to completely eliminate the EPA.
A group of State Department employees took to petitioning to make their voices heard. A dissent cable that disputed President Trump’s immigration executive order to temporarily block immigrants from Muslim countries garnered over 1,000 signatures. The State Department employees asserted in the memo that it would not help keep American any safer.
The White House responded to the actions of the State Department employees with a stern message. In a press briefing, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said, “The president has a very clear vision. He’s been clear on it since the campaign.” He added that “career bureaucrats” such as the dissenting State Department employees can either “get with the program or go.”
Other federal employees have been more outwardly defiant in their disagreement with the Trump administration’s policies. In what is probably the most high profile case this week, now former acting attorney general Sally Yates refused to comply with the president’s executive order on immigration. She was fired almost immediately.
Some federal employees have been getting training from outside experts on how they can express dissent. The Washington Post reported that 180 federal employees have signed up for a “civil disobedience” class where experts will provide advice on workers’ rights.
Growing Frustration in Congress
Federal workers should tread cautiously, however. Some Republican lawmakers are outwardly growing tired of the dissent coming from the federal workforce. The Hill reported that some GOP Members of Congress are starting to agree with what Sean Spicer said: federal workers can do their jobs or find work elsewhere.
Congressman Pete Sessions (R-TX), for example, told The Hill, “When someone works full time for the government, it should be no surprise to them that they serve at the pleasure of the [president]. I’m not interested in politics by an agency employee.”
Congressman Bill Flores (R-TX) took a simple approach, saying, “I don’t think it’s rocket science. All they [federal employees] have to do is do their job. If they don’t want to do their jobs, they should get another job.”
Democratic lawmakers are generally more sympathetic. Congressman Elijah Cummings (D-MD), for instance, said that he wants federal employees to know that they are free to call him with any problems or concerns.
The report in The Hill didn’t say that any definitive repercussions were being discussed by lawmakers, just that a growing frustration was building, which could of course lead to action in the future.
So do these dissenting federal employees have a right to speak their minds, or are they putting their jobs at risk?
As I wrote recently, the Supreme Court said that free speech by a public official is protected if that individual is engaged as a private citizen, but it is not protected if the opinions are expressed as part of his/her public duties.
ACLU attorney Esha Bhandari also discussed the issue and confirmed what the court said, but noted that federal workers who speak their minds must take care to do so as private citizens rather than as representatives of their agencies.
Change is rarely something that is easy to adapt to, and the federal workforce is likely going to face some changes in the coming four years. It will be interesting to see what impact the opposition coming from the federal workforce potentially has on influencing the actions of the new administration and what the fallout is, if any, for those voicing their dissent.