After the Trump administration issued a directive to limit agency communications, various tweets and Twitter accounts began popping up, apparently in defiance of the new administration’s policies.
For example, the official Badlands National Park twitter account posted some tweets about climate change before they were then removed a short time later.
Other accounts supporting or even posing as federal agencies began to spring up. One Twitter account called “ActualEPAFacts” which has been issuing tweets in support of the EPA and climate change just recently launched and has already gained well over 100,000 followers.
Another called “AltNASA” has many tweets in support of climate change and global warming and also has over 100,000 followers despite having only recently launched.
So where are these accounts and tweets coming from?
The AP reported that it began with unauthorized tweets appearing on official agency Twitter accounts that were then deleted by the agencies, such as was the case with the Badlands National Park. That case was attributed to a former employee who had unauthorized access to the account.
What is less clear is if any of the “rogue” Twitter accounts were set up by federal employees. According to the AP story, there is some indication that some of the accounts may have been set up by federal employees who used their work email addresses to set up the accounts, thereby exposing their identity as agency employees.
If federal workers are indeed behind any of the unauthorized tweets posted to agency accounts, they could potentially face criminal prosecution under the U.S. Computer Fraud and Abuse Act for having exceeded their authorized use of the government accounts, according to the article by the AP.
What about freedom of speech?
ACLU attorney Esha Bhandari wrote in a blog post that federal employees are not allowed to say whatever they want at work and while using official government channels of communication. However, she said that federal employees are allowed to speak their minds as private citizens.
The Supreme Court has stated clearly that public employees cannot be fired for speaking on issues of public concern as private individuals. Practically speaking, this means that – with the possible exception of certain high-ranking government officials – an employee can speak on personal time and in a personal capacity about matters that affect the public. Their protections are strongest when they are speaking about issues that do not relate to their job duties. For example, a scientist who works at the Environmental Protection Agency is free to research and write academic papers on her own time, which she can then publish under her own name.
She also alluded to the new Twitter accounts that have appeared and seemed to suggest that, assuming they are being run by federal employees, they would probably meet this requirement since its not an official agency account and (presumably) being done in the employees’ free time.
“One Twitter account that launched last night seems to be run by a handful of National Park Service rangers apparently writing during their personal time,” wrote Bhandari.
A 2006 Supreme Court case would seem to confirm what Bhandari was saying. In Garcetti v. Ceballos, 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.
Is This All New?
There is some obvious consternation among certain agencies and employees, particularly when it comes to a difference of opinion over the agency’s mission, as indicated by the Twitter situation.
The EPA, for instance, is not viewed favorably by the Trump administration, so its understandable that employees who believe strongly in the agency’s mission will not like this position.
But is the directive that came from the White House last week to temporarily halt agency communications a big deal, in and of itself?
In an article about the directive, the New York Times quoted a senior EPA official who said:
I’ve lived through many transitions, and I don’t think this is a story. I don’t think it’s fair to call it a gag order. This is standard practice. And the move with regard to the grants, when a new administration comes in, you run things by them before you update the website.
What would be a bigger deal for agencies, however, are budget and staffing cuts. This idea has been floated for the EPA, with discussion of cuts to the agency’s workforce going as high as 50%.
It’s too early to know if any of these cuts will come to fruition, but plenty of opinions on both sides are already letting their voices be heard.