U.S. Courts Agency Sued for Violating Free Speech Rights

(Bloomberg) -- Everyone expects a judge to be impartial. In fact, it’s generally required that judges avoid even the perception of impropriety, so as not to taint the public’s trust in the justice system. But the American Civil Liberties Union thinks the agency that helps run the U.S. court system has gone a little too far in extending those restrictions to its administrative employees.

New rules barring hundreds of support staff from expressing political opinions on social media or donating to political parties is a violation of their First Amendment rights, the ACLU said in a lawsuit filed Thursday in Washington federal court.

The measures at the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, part of the judicial branch of the U.S. government, are stricter than those governing political activity by employees of executive branch agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Central Intelligence Agency and the Department of Justice, the ACLU argued in its complaint. The rules, implemented in March, also bar court employees from displaying political lawn signs at home or wearing political buttons when not at work, the ACLU said.

“During my three decades in public service, I’ve never had to choose between my job and being an active participant in our democracy,” one of the plaintiffs in the case, Lisa Guffey, said in a statement. Guffey, of Silver Springs, Maryland, is a supervisory attorney adviser with the court agency, and a former lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy’s Judge Advocate General’s Corps.

“Even Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III could legally contribute funds to President Trump’s primary or general-election challengers for reelection, while an AOUSC facilities manager cannot,” the ACLU said in the statement. Charles Hall, a spokesman for the agency, declined to comment.

In July 2017, the court agency’s director, James Duff, said in a memorandum that the new restrictions convey a “unity of purpose" between the administrative office and the courts by applying the same restrictions on support staff that apply to federal judges, the ACLU said. Such “vague rationales” don’t justify restrictions on free speech, the organization said.

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