Court says federal workers can't spend honorariums


WASHINGTON -- Federal government workers who give speeches and write articles outside their jobs may accept payments for those activities, but are forbidden -- at least temporarily -- to keep or spend that money, a federal appeals court ruled yesterday.

For the time being, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals here said, the workers will have to continue obeying a new law that bars them from receiving personally any fees or honorariums for outside speaking or writing, even if entirely unrelated to the job.

But, on the chance that workers ultimately might get the courts to strike down that new law, they may have any fees they earn put aside in a special "escrow account" beyond their reach until a final court ruling emerges, the Circuit Court said.

If the claim that the fee ban is a violation of the workers' free speech rights is upheld in court, the workers then could get the funds in such an account, the court made clear.

It ruled, therefore, that the workers cannot show that they will suffer any real harm if they have to do without the fees in the meantime. For that reason, the court refused to block continued enforcement of the ban, which went into effect Jan. 1.

The ruling cleared the way for a federal judge here to move forward toward a final ruling on the constitutionality of the law forbidding honorariums for outside speeches and articles by nearly all federal employees. Yesterday's ruling by the Circuit Court only dealt with the employees' claim that they should be allowed to collect honorariums and spend them while their constitutional challenge is under review.

Before U.S. District Judge Thomas P. Jackson issues a ruling, the federal workers who write and speak on their own time may be able to get Congress to come to their aid, according to the National Treasury Employees Union, which is involved in the court challenge to the new law.

A Senate committee has approved a bill to lift the ban on most honorariums for federal workers, and that measure is now awaiting action by the full Senate.

A House Judiciary subcommittee has endorsed a similar bill, and that measure awaits action by the full Judiciary Committee.

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