First Amendment Victory: NGIC Rescinds Directive, Will Allow Federal Employee to Display Pro-Trump Political Sign on His Personal Vehicle
by Nisha Whittehead
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — In response to a letter from The Rutherford Institute, federal officials have rescinded a directive and will allow a federal employee to display a pro-Trump political sign on the personal vehicles he uses to commute to work. In coming to Mike Sienda’s defense, Rutherford Institute attorneys asserted that the National Ground Intelligence Center (NGIC) infringed on the Army veteran’s First Amendment right to fully participate in the nation’s political process when it ordered him to remove the pro-Trump/Pence signs under a federal law, the Hatch Act, that limits the political activities of federal employees.
Enacted in 1939, the Hatch Act was intended to maintain a federal workforce that is free from partisan political influence or coercion. However, Rutherford Institute attorneys pointed out that the Hatch Act does not expressly forbid the kind of signs Sienda displayed on his vehicle and that regulations and opinions issued by federal government agencies and lawyers have acknowledged that federal employees do not violate the Hatch Act by having bumper stickers and other signs on their personal vehicles that are parked at lots controlled by the government. On Thursday, NGIC agreed to allow Sienda to display a pro-Trump sign from his personal vehicle while in the NGIC parking lot.
“Americans have a clear First Amendment right to freedom of political expression, whether that ‘expression’ takes place at a podium, on a t-shirt, a billboard, a picket sign, or on the side of a personal truck parked in a government lot for federal employees,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “As abolitionist Frederick Douglass recognized, ‘To suppress free speech is a double wrong. It violates the rights of the hearer as well as those of the speaker. It is just as criminal to rob a man of his right to speak and hear as it would be to rob him of his money.’”
Having served in the Army, Mike Sienda is now employed at NGIC, a part of the U.S. Army Intelligence and Security Command with a facility in northern Albemarle (Va.) County. In early September 2016, Sienda drove a box truck to his employment and parked it in a parking lot provided for employees across a paved road from the main NGIC facility. The van had signs displayed on each side reading “Trump 2016 Pence” that were approximately three feet tall and 5 feet wide. Sienda thereafter was contacted by a supervisor at NGIC who informed him that he must either remove the political signs from the vehicle or not park the vehicle on government property. According to the supervisor, the display of the signs violated the Hatch Act. Sienda complied with the directive and thereafter drove his personal Jeep to work with a sign on the rear window which read “Trump 2016: Make America Great Again.” Sienda parked the Jeep in an NGIC lot. On October 5, Sienda was again contacted by a supervisor directing him not to park the vehicle on government property until an opinion could be obtained from the Office of Special Counsel (OSC), a federal agency charged with offering advice and enforcing the Hatch Act and other laws protecting federal employees.
In coming to Sienda’s defense, attorneys for The Rutherford Institute contacted NGIC, pointing out that the Hatch Act guarantees the right of employees to fully and freely participate in the political processes of the nation “to the extent not expressly prohibited by law,” and nothing in the Hatch Act forbids the kind of displays Sienda made. To the contrary, a Hatch Act regulation specifically provides that federal employees are allowed to have political bumper stickers on the cars they drive to and park at work, and a 2011 letter from the OSC states that political signs are allowed on employee vehicles regardless of size.