The government cannot prohibit most federal employees from collecting fees for speeches and written articles on subjects unrelated to their work, the Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.
The 6-3 decision struck down a law that had imposed a flat ban on speaking or appearance fees, often called honorariums, saying the law violates free-speech rights when applied to the 1.7 million rank-and-file employees of the executive branch.
The ruling left Congress free to try writing a narrower law, such as one that would ban such fees only in obvious conflict-of-interest cases.
And the court did not disturb the ban on such fees imposed for senior officials in the executive branch and for the federal government's legislative and judicial branches - including members of Congress and all federal judges.
The court acknowledged the government's interest in guarding against federal employees misusing or appearing to misuse power by accepting outside compensation.
"But the government cites no evidence of misconduct related to honoraria in the vast rank and file of federal employees," Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the court.
His opinion was joined by Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer.
Justice Sandra Day O'Connor agreed the ban was unconstitutional as applied to workers getting paid for activities unrelated to their work but said the court should have upheld the ban as applied to fees for work-related activities.
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented.
Writing for the three, Rehnquist said the ruling "understates the weight which should be accorded to the governmental justifications for the honoraria ban and overstates …