July 21, 2006

Why Contractors Are Better Than Civil Servants

by PG

I knew of some factors that made contractors' employees easier to fire -- generally non-unionized, particularly in a right-to-work state like Virginia; lacking statutory protections given to civil service employees -- and therefore preferable despite the higher cost of contracting. However, I'd never thought about the First Amendment aspect. Private sector employees can be fired for publicly disagreeing with their employer, even on a matter of public policy. Law student bloggers shouldn't post about a case in opposition to their employer's stance. (Though I think writing in non-legal terms about a corporate client with whom you haven't worked and is OK; some firms have so many clients in a particular sector that you'd never be able to complain about the bad smell on a flight, or a fight with your cell phone provider, if you observed a blanket ban.)

Government employees usually cannot be fired simply for disagreeing as long as the disagreement doesn't affect their work performance; a policy that paralleled the private sector's would mean that you'd lose your right to free speech upon receiving a taxpayer-funded paycheck. Christine Axsmith's paycheck had "BAE Systems" rather than "Central Intelligence Agency" on it*, so she could be fired for her weblog, though it was posted on Intelink, the intelligence community's classified intranet, and therefore available only to people with top-secret security clearances.

CIA spokesman Paul Gimigliano declined to comment on Axsmith's case but said the policy on blogs is that "postings should relate directly to the official business of the author and readers of the site, and that managers should be informed of online projects that use government resources. CIA expects contractors to do the work they are paid to do."
According to Axsmith, her managers were aware of the site and even gave her the number of people who were reading each entry. (I'd have to get the paid version of Sitemeter for those statistics.) If Axsmith blogged during time in which she was getting paid to work -- especially if her compensation package included overtime pay -- she deserved to be reprimanded as soon as her supervisor became aware of the behavior, and to be fired if she repeated it. If she posted factual information that should not have been known even to people with access to Intelink, she posed a security threat and deserved to lose her clearance and be fired. The timing of her job loss, coming the same day she posted her negative opinion about U.S. compliance with the Geneva Convention, points strongly to the conclusion that BAE fired Axsmith at the CIA's direction because she publicizing views on Intelink that were contrary to the CIA's.

The CIA has been granted significant constitutional leeway in restricting its employees' and past employees' speech. It requires prepublication review of books to ensure that classified material does not become publicized, although the authors unsurprisingly complain that too much is classified, and one went to the extreme of wanting to publish a whole internal report.

* Actually, do CIA employees' paychecks have the Agency's name on them? I've been told that if you work for the CIA, even if it's not as as secret agent, you should minimize public knowledge of that fact. And there's all those massive office parks out in Northern Virginia that have random names on them but allegedly are government buildings.

July 21, 2006 06:59 PM | TrackBack

And there's all those massive office parks out in Northern Virginia that have random names on them but allegedly are government buildings.

Not to mention all of the military personnel at the White House who dress in civilian clothes so to make that the public doesn't realize how many military people work at the White House. (I wouldn't have known either, except that my parents were military who were stationed at the White House.)

Posted by: Ruth at July 26, 2006 12:20 AM

Also, when I was a civil servant working for the Army, I believe we were allowed to post whatever we wanted on blogs and things as long as we didn't post anything political on government time or property (i.e. posting from the office computer). I was never good at following that rule, so I'm glad I never got caught. :P

Posted by: Ruth at July 26, 2006 12:22 AM
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