Mike Sienda is a retired Army guy who now works as a federal employee at the National Ground Intelligence Center’s Rivanna Station, aka the “spy center.” Sienda is also a Donald Trump supporter, and at a recent rally he purchased two Trump/Pence signs and riveted them to the side of his box truck.
His efforts were not welcomed when he drove into work September 1. “They didn’t like it,” he says. “They said to take the signs down or remove the vehicle.”
Sienda went home, but he’s still fuming about the incident. “Just because I work for the government doesn’t mean I give up my rights,” he says.
Sienda says he was told he violated the Hatch Act, which prohibits federal employees from on-the-job politicking. “I asked what part of the Hatch Act I was in violation of,” he says. “They couldn’t tell me.”
According to NGIC spokesperson Rita McIntosh, an employee with a “large delivery truck with a billboard-sized partisan political banner attached to it” was asked to remove the vehicle because it violated the Hatch Act, based on guidelines from the Office of Special Counsel, which has advised that the display of more than a standard-sized political bumper sticker could be a violation.
Civil libertarian John Whitehead at the Rutherford Institute isn’t so sure.
“The issue here is whether this sign should be treated as a bumper sticker or a sign being displayed at the place of work,” says Whitehead.
He notes that the U.S. Supreme Court twice has upheld the Hatch Act, which says that while an employee “retains the right to vote as he chooses and to express his opinion on political subjects and candidates,” it also provides that a federal employee may not engage in political activity while on duty, in any room or building of a federal agency, while in uniform or using a federal vehicle.
Employees are allowed to run for office in nonpartisan elections, such as the school board, and can work for political parties, but can’t wear partisan buttons on the job.
Whitehead points out that Sienda was in the parking lot, not a building, so the sign could be considered a bumper sticker. “On the other hand, the purpose of the restriction would seem to forbid subjecting federal employees to partisan signs in the workplace, and this sign might well be viewable inside the building and considered not allowable,” he says.
The Supreme Court, he adds, has not ruled that a restriction prohibiting bumper stickers would violate the First Amendment, but it has hinted that such a restriction would go too far.
Other cars in the NGIC parking lot have political bumper stickers, says Sienda. “I suspect many people I work with don’t like Trump,” he says.
Sienda, 54, has contacted the ACLU of Virginia and the Rutherford Institute. “I feel strongly about my views and I understand the Constitution,” he says. “I want to express my right to participate in the political process. This election is the most important one I’ve ever participated in.”
While he’s hesitant to drive his van back to the spy center, Sienda has ordered a Trump bumper sticker and a window decal that he’s going to put on his car.
“If you don’t exercise your rights,” he says, “you give them up.”