USPS Gag Order – Not just USPS building under wraps

By Anna Tallarico – September 27, 2023
On Sept. 20, The Leader received a tip that within the last few months several employees had quit the U.S. Post Office in Port Townsend due to management issues.

The Leader approached a carrier to “ask a quick question.” The carrier shook their head and said they were not allowed to speak to the press.

A quick internet search later revealed that according to the National Labor Relations Board, which provides information on the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), any employee has the right to “talk to the media about problems in [their] workplace.”

The Leader then went to a supervisor of the USPS in Port Townsend, who said that no employee could speak to a member of the press and that all media inquiries must go through their legal team, based in Seattle and representing the entire state of Washington.

The Leader contacted the legal team.

“While employees are on the clock, they have specific duties and assignments and speaking to the media is not among them,” said Kim Frum, Strategic Communications Specialist, in an email response to The Leader’s inquiry on the NLRA.

“They do not have the time or the appropriate information available to devote to impromptu interviews.”

Frum did not address the NLRA specifically in that email. In a follow-up, however, she wrote, “all questions from reporters for media purposes, no matter if it is to quash a rumor or to get other information about the Postal Service, must come through my office. Media relation folks are here to provide reporters with accurate information and prevent hearsay and false information.”

This parallels language found in USPS memos leaked three years ago, titled “Guidelines for Handling Local Media Inquiries.”

One memo read, “The Postal Service continuously strives to project a positive image, protect its brand, and present a unified message to the customers and communities it serves.”

Furthermore, the memos stated that it is “imperative” only one person speak on behalf of the Postal Service to deliver an “appropriate and consistent” message to the media.

This would seem to contradict the language of the NLRA. However, Frum assured The Leader that “all employees’ rights are protected,” even though the right of federal employees to criticize their agencies, free from censorship and retaliation, was established in the 1995 court case Sanjour v. EPA.

As the Court explained in that decision, “It is perhaps the most fundamental principle of First Amendment jurisprudence that the government may not regulate speech on the ground that it expresses a dissenting viewpoint.”

In the 1968 case Pickering v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court held that public employees had a First Amendment constitutional right to disagree with the policies and priorities of their government-employer in the press. In 2006, the Court reaffirmed that ruling in Garcetti v. Ceballos.

It appears that while a USPS employee may not be able to talk to the press while on duty, the USPS may not restrict that employee’s speech when the employee is not on the job.

When asked to validate that statement, Frum said, “While your statement is accurate, it’s important to have the context behind it,” and restated her original reasoning behind why postal workers are instructed to direct all media inquiries to Strategic Communications.

Justice Anthony Kennedy explained during the Garcetti v. Ceballos decision, “a citizen who works for the government is nonetheless a citizen.”

Source: Port Townsend Leader

Related: USPS Guidelines for Handling Local Media – August 14, 2020

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