United States v. Treasury Employees,
513 U.S. 454 (1995)

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No. 93-1170. Argued November 8, 1994-Decided February 22,1995

After § 501(b) of the Ethics in Government Act of 1978 was amended to prohibit a Member of Congress, federal officer, or other Government employee from accepting an honorarium for making an appearance or speech or writing an article, respondents-including individual members of, and a union representing, a class composed of all Executive Branch employees below grade GS-16 who, but for § 501(b), would receive honoraria-filed a suit challenging the statute as an unconstitutional abridgment of their freedom of speech. The speeches and articles for which respondents had received honoraria in the past concerned matters such as religion, history, dance, and the environment; with few exceptions, neither their subjects nor the persons or groups paying for them had any connection with respondents' official duties. In granting respondents' motion for summary judgment, the District Court held § 501(b) unconstitutional insofar as it applies to Executive Branch employees and enjoined the Government from enforcing it against any such employee. The Court of Appeals affirmed, emphasizing, inter alia, that the Government's failure as to many respondents to identify some sort of nexus between the employee's job and either the expression's subject matter or the payor's character undercut its proffered concern about actual or apparent improprieties in the receipt of honoraria.

Held: Section 501(b) violates the First Amendment. Pp. 464-480.

(a) The honoraria ban imposes the kind of burden that abridges speech under the First Amendment. Where, as here, Government employees seek to exercise their right as citizens to comment on matters of public interest, and are not attempting simply to speak as employees upon personal matters, the Government must be able to satisfy a balancing test of the type set forth in Pickering v. Board of Ed. of Township High School Dist. 205, Will Cty., 391 U. S. 563, 568, in order to maintain a statutory restriction on the employees' speech. See Civil Service Comm'n v. Letter Carriers, 413 U. S. 548, 564. However, because § 501(b) constitutes a wholesale deterrent to a broad category of expression by a massive number of potential speakers, the Government's burden here is even greater than it was in Pickering and its progeny, which


usually involved individual disciplinary actions taken in response to particular government employees' actual speech. Specifically, the Government must show that the interests of both potential audiences and a vast group of present and future employees in a broad range of present and future expression are outweighed by that expression's "necessary impact on the actual operation" of the Government, Pickering, 391 U. S., at 571. Although § 501(b) neither prohibits any speech nor discriminates among speakers based on the content or viewpoint of their messages, its prohibition on compensation unquestionably imposes a significant burden on respondents' expressive activity by inducing them to curtail their expression if they wish to continue their employment. Moreover, the ban imposes a far more significant burden on them than on the relatively small group of lawmakers whose past receipt of honoraria assertedly motivated its enactment. The large-scale disincentive to expression also imposes a significant burden on the public's right to read and hear what Government employees would otherwise have written and said. Pp. 464-470.

(b) The Government has failed to show how the interests it asserts to justify § 501(b) are served by applying the honoraria ban to respondents. Public Workers v. Mitchell, 330 U. S. 75, distinguished. Although the asserted concern that federal officers not misuse or appear to misuse power by accepting compensation for their unofficial and nonpolitical writing and speaking activities is undeniably powerful, the Government cites no evidence of misconduct related to honoraria by the vast rank and file of federal employees below grade GS-16. The limited evidence of actual or apparent impropriety by Members of Congress and highlevel executives cannot justify extension of the honoraria ban to that rank and file, an immense class of workers with negligible power to confer favors on those who might pay to hear them speak or to read their articles. Moreover, while operational efficiency is undoubtedly a vital governmental interest, several features of the text of the ban and of the pertinent regulations cast serious doubt on the Government's submission that Congress perceived honoraria as so threatening to the efficiency of the entire federal service as to render the ban a reasonable response to the threat. First, the total exemption of payments for "any series of appearances, speeches, or articles" unrelated to the employee's official duties or status from § 505(3)'s definition of "honorarium" undermines application of the ban to individual speeches and articles with no nexus to Government employment. Second, the definition's limitation of "honoraria" to payments for expressive activities, as opposed to other services that a Government employee might perform in his or her spare time, requires a justification far stronger than the mere speculation

Full Text of Opinion

Primary Holding

Federal civil servants have the right to accept pay for speeches and articles, which Congress may not infringe.


Congress provided in the Ethics Reform Act of 1989 that federal employees could not accept any compensation or honorarium for making speeches or writing articles. While honorarium initially was defined as any compensation for an appearance, speech, or article, it was amended in 1992 to cover only appearances, speeches, or articles that were related to the official role of the government employee. The National Treasury Employees Union argued that the ban on honoraria was unconstitutional and received summary judgment in the lower court. An injunction was issued that prevented the government from enforcing the ban against an executive branch employee.



  • John Paul Stevens (Author)
  • Anthony M. Kennedy
  • David H. Souter
  • Ruth Bader Ginsburg
  • Stephen G. Breyer

The First Amendment protects the rights of government employees to discuss matters of public concern as ordinary citizens. This is a category of speech separate from employee speech on matters related to a specific workplace. While the lack of compensation probably does not greatly affect high-ranking officials, lower-paid employees will suffer from a chilling effect if they are unable to receive compensation. Since the regulation is overly broad in prohibiting protected as well as unprotected speech, it is unconstitutional as applied not only to executive branch employees but also to others.


  • William Hubbs Rehnquist (Author)
  • Antonin Scalia
  • Clarence Thomas

The First Amendment burden here may be justified by the findings of Congress that it had a substantial interest in preventing its work force from engaging in inappropriate or seemingly inappropriate activities. No injunction should have been granted except with regard to the enforcement of the ban against executive branch employees below grade GS-16 who are receiving compensation for speech that is unrelated to their employment.

Concurrence/Dissent In Part

  • Sandra Day O'Connor (Author)

Case Commentary

A key factor to consider in this type of case is whether the topic of the employee's speech or writing would be likely to trigger a concern over whether the employee might receive improper compensation. First Amendment protections generally are more limited in the employment context, and this is especially true with regard to government employment.

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