NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory on Tuesday said it planned to appeal a National Labor Relations Board judge's order to rescind disciplinary actions against five engineers and scientists who shared emails at work about a Supreme Court decision on background security checks for JPL employees.
Administrative Law Judge William G. Kocol ordered JPL, which is operated by the California Institute of Technology for NASA, to remove disciplinary letters related to the case from the employee files of the five who were accused of violating spam rules, and to post a notice of his ruling in a public place.
In a terse response, JPL spokeswoman Veronica McGregor said, "Caltech respectfully disagrees with the decision and intends to appeal."
In an interview, Robert Nelson, who was among the five, said: "I am shocked to hear this. All Judge Kocol asked them to do was remove five letters from the files of five people – three of whom, including myself, don't work there anymore.
"To take this case back to the NLRB is an example of unwise spending by Caltech," he said. "The legal fees they are spending ought to concern donors to Caltech and the federal government, which supports it."
The five were among a group of 28 employees 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.
The Supreme Court justices ruled that questions of drug use and other personal matters did not constitute a violation of privacy rights, and that it was reasonable for the government to inquire about the trustworthiness of people working on multibillion-dollar projects.
The scientists were later disciplined for using JPL computers to express their views about the ruling in emails. JPL managers deemed the emails disruptive and not related to work.
But Kocol ruled that the emails were protected speech. He also pointed out that other JPL employees routinely rely on email communications for matters unrelated to work such as sales of Girl Scout cookies and invitations to join softball teams.