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Judge orders JPL to drop discipline over scientists' email

JPL said the employees' messages about background checks violated its rules against spam.

May 13, 2013|By Louis Sahagun, Los Angeles Times

A National Labor Relations Board judge has ordered NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory to rescind disciplinary actions against five 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 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 Banerdt.

The five were accused of violating rules against unsolicited spam and bulk email. However, Kocol said he could find no difference between their emails and those routinely sent by other JPL employees to sell Girl Scout cookies.

The emails were protected speech and JPL does not have the authority to label emails "as 'political' and thereby escape following the law of the land," Kocol said.

Dan Stormer, attorney for the scientists, said the ruling was "a repudiation of JPL's unlawful employment practices. 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 post-9/11 directive by then-President George W. Bush 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 issues of drug use and other personal matters do 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 used JPL computers to express their views in emails. JPL managers deemed the emails 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 awards plaques to JPL divisions with the highest percentage of people contributing to United Way.

louis.sahagun@latimes.com

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