OSC Seal

U.S. Office of Special Counsel

1730 M Street, N.W., Suite 300

Washington, D.C. 20036-4505


(202) 653-7984

    The U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC) today announced a favorable settlement of the petition for corrective action that it filed against the Department of the Interior, on behalf of Deane Zeller on October 19, 1999. OSC’s petition alleged that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) violated the First Amendment when it reprimanded and reassigned Mr. Zeller in response to a letter that he wrote to Government Executive magazine, which was critical of the agency’s affirmative action program. The specific terms of the settlement are required to be kept confidential by agreement of the parties. The parties, however, have expressed their mutual satisfaction with those terms.

    OSC’s petition alleged that Mr. Zeller was reprimanded and then reassigned to a non-supervisory position based upon the views he expressed in a letter to the editor that he had written to Government Executive magazine. Mr. Zeller’s letter responded to an article on affirmative action in the federal government, which highlighted the opinions of a high-ranking Bureau official. In his letter, Mr. Zeller was critical of BLM’s affirmative action policies. 
    Mr. Zeller’s letter was published in July 1996 and the magazine identified him as “Deane H. Zeller, District Manager, Salt Lake City District, Bureau of Land Management, Interior Department.” Approximately one month later, Mr. Zeller was issued a Letter of Reprimand for “using [his] official title in [his] private capacity [in his letter to the editor] and in doing so, making statements contrary to Bureau policy.” 

    In September 1996, the BLM Director sent a memorandum to all employees disagreeing with the views expressed by Mr. Zeller in his letter to the editor. The BLM Director attached a copy of his own letter to Government Executive magazine that was subsequently published in November 1996. 

    In January 1997, BLM informed Mr. Zeller that it was permanently reassigning him from his supervisory position. At that time, according to OSC’s petition, some agency officials made verbal references to Mr. Zeller’s letter to the editor as a basis for the reassignment. 

    In challenging the agency’s reprimand and the reassignment, OSC cited the First Amendment. Thus, while Government-wide ethics regulations generally prohibit the use of official titles in personal correspondence, such regulations do not permit agencies to discipline their employees for speaking out against agency policies.

    Special Counsel Elaine Kaplan thanked the Department of the Interior for its cooperation in resolving Mr. Zeller’s complaint without the need for protracted litigation. She observed that the “protection of government employees’ First Amendment rights is a central part of OSC’s mission,” and that “OSC intends to continue to pursue cases, like Mr. Zeller’s, where we believe that those rights have been infringed.” “No federal employee,” she said, “should fear that they will be penalized on the job for expressing their opinions on controversial matters of public concern.” 

(MSPB Docket Number CB-1214-00-0001-T-1.)