A National Labor Relations Board judge has ordered NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge to rescind disciplinary actions against five scientists who shared emails at work about a Supreme Court decision on background security checks.
Administrative Law Judge William G. Kocol also ordered JPL to purge disciplinary letters related to the case from the employee files of Dennis Byrnes, Scott Maxwell, Larry D’Addario, Robert Nelson and William Bruce Barnerdt.
The five were accused of violating rules against unsolicited Spam and bulk-e-mail. However, Kocol, in a 31-page ruling issued May 6, could find no difference between their emails and those routinely by other JPL employees to sell Girl Scout cookies.
The emails, Kocol said, were protected speech and JPL does not have the authority to label emails "as 'political' and thereby escape following the law of the land."
“This ruling is a complete slam dunk victory for these employees and a repudiation of JPL’s unlawful employment practices,” Dan Stormer, the scientists’ attorney, said in an interview. “The disciplinary measures taken against these people were a step toward termination for longtime employees with impeccable records.”
JPL officials were not immediately available for comment.
The employees were among a group of 28 veteran researchers and scientists at JPL who had challenged a directive by President George W. Bush after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to extend background checks to all corporate, college and think tank employees who worked on government projects.
In January 2011, the Supreme Court ruled that questions of drug use and other personal matters did not constitute a violation of privacy rights. The justices also held that it was reasonable for the government to inquire about the trustworthiness of people working on multibillion–dollar projects such as space telescopes.
The scientists were later disciplined for using JPL computers to express their views about the ruling in emails the agency deemed unsolicited, offensive, disruptive and unrelated to work. One message, which was co-signed by Nelson, Byrnes and a third individual, was received by 773 people.
Kocol, however, pointed out that other JPL employees routinely relied on email communications to sell Girl Scout cookies, support ice cream socials held at work, promote lunch specials at a local restaurant and award plaques to JPL divisions with the highest percentage of people contributing to United Way.