WASHINGTON – For years George Jackson led a double life of science and art – microbiologist by day at the Food & Drug Administration and free-lance writer by night and weekend.
But when Congress passed a provision in 1989 prohibiting low- and mid-level federal employees from receiving pay for outside speeches and articles, it threatened to dry up Jackson’s ink and his modest extra income.
With a 6-3 decision Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the measure, which means the 1.5 million to 2 million white- collar federal employees earning between $11,900 and $86,600 a year will be allowed to continue moonlighting.
Justice John Paul Stevens stated in the majority opinion that because “the vast majority of the speech at issue” does not involve work-related material and is conducted outside the work place, the government can’t justify the provision on the grounds of “immediate work place disruption.”
Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, among the six voting to lift the ban, wrote a separate opinion opposing the ruling’s broadness. She said only activities that do not pose a conflict- of-interest with an employee’s work should be allowed.
The decision prompted concern from a watchdog group that supports conflict-of-interest rules for government employees.
“We did not believe that the flat ban was unconstitutional,” said Meredith McGehee, legislative director for Common Cause.
McGehee said Congress now needs to ban conflict-of-interest activities of low- and mid-level federal employees.
But Robert M. Tobias, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, praised the court’s decision. He said it “allows federal employees to engage in outside activities to supplement their income.”
Tobias’ union, which represents 155,000 employees at 18 federal agencies, led the lawsuit against the federal government.
Employees affected by the Supreme Court’s ruling include one who performed marriages and another who wrote articles for a horticulture magazine, Tobias said.
Jackson, a D.C. resident who writes dance reviews for The Washington Post and Dance Magazine, said the court ruling will free him from restrictions on his writing. While the lawsuit progressed through the courts, the Food & Drug Administration allowed Jackson to continue free-lancing, but restricted his writing to series of articles.
He was barred from writing individual reviews.
Others who sued along with Jackson and the union included Peter Crane, a Chevy Chase, Md., resident who works as a lawyer for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and writes occasionally about Russian history, and Robert Gordon, who works as an aerospace engineer for Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. He lectures on black history in his spare time.