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Federal employees can hang political posters on union bulletin boards without running afoul of laws that limit political activity in the workplace, a federal judge in Manhattan has ruled. Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein of the Southern District of New York held this week that employees of the U.S. Postal Service were protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution when they hung political posters in designated union areas during the 2000 presidential election. The judge further held that the American Postal Workers Union (APWU) could “advocate the election of candidates through display of posters and like materials on designated union bulletin boards in non-public areas of post offices, so long as the display is not coordinated with or in concert with a political party or candidate.” Judge Hellerstein enjoined the Postal Service from “interfering” with the union’s displays and from disciplining employees who hung such posters and refused to remove them. The posters in question, created by the union and mailed to about 27,000 members during the 2000 elections, compared the positions and voting records of Vice President Albert H. Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush. Although the posters did not recommend either presidential candidate, Hellerstein wrote, they suggested that Gore held positions more favorable to the postal workers and their union. In late October 2000, a U.S. Postal Service lawyer asked the union to order its members to remove the posters because they violated the Hatch Act, 5 U.S.C. �� 7321-7326, which forbids government employees from politicizing the workplace. The union’s president, William Burrus, refused, saying the Postal Service had no authority to make the request. The Postal Service issued an “advisory opinion” that said employees who hung posters were violating the Hatch Act and could be subject to discipline. The postal workers union sued and won a temporary injunction from Hellerstein. The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals denied the Postal Service’s request for an emergency stay pending appeal in December 2001, ruling that the appeal was moot because the election had ended and the posters were no longer being displayed. Earlier this week, Hellerstein ruled that the Hatch Act, which was enacted in 1939 and amended in 1993, did not preclude this type of activity and had, in fact, historically supported it. The judge rejected the Postal Service’s argument that the amended act prevents employees from engaging in the types of political activity that had been legal before 1993, saying there was not “a shred of support” for that position. “Nothing in the regulations addresses the display of political materials on union bulletin boards,” Hellerstein wrote in Burrus v. Vegliante, 00 Civ. 8392. “Neither the statute, nor [federal regulations], proscribes that which has historically been considered a lawful and protected method of communication on a subject of interest to unions and their members.” Hellerstein noted that not all political activity is forbidden by the Hatch Act. Federal employees may, he wrote, express their opinions on political candidates or subjects, serve as officers of a political party, manage a campaign and make contributions to candidates. But while they are on duty, he said, they may not attend political events, stuff envelopes for a candidate, or display buttons, signs or badges. The judge endorsed several pre-1993 rulings that held federal employees were barred only from political activities done in concert with political candidates or parties, including United States Civil Services Commission v. National Association of Letter Carriers, 413 U.S. 548 (1973); United Public Workers v. Mitchell, 330 U.S. 75 (1947); and Biller v. United States Merit Systems Protection Board, 863 F.2d 1079 (2d Circ. 1988). Darryl J. Anderson of O’Donnell, Schwartz & Anderson, in Washington, D.C., and Adrienne L. Saldana of New York’s Spivak, Lipton, Watanabe, Spivak & Moss represented the postal union. Assistant U.S. Attorney David J. Kennedy represented the government.

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