A retired naval officer, now a federal employee, is asking a federal court to protect his First Amendment right to run for election to the Alpine Union School District Board.

Christopher Newcomb was appointed to fill an unexpired position on the Alpine school board. His term expires in November, and he is running for election. By California law, the school board election is nonpartisan, and Newcomb is campaigning in a completely nonpartisan manner. However, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC) has warned him that it may find him in violation of the Hatch Act, which prohibits federal employees from engaging in certain partisan political activities, “even if you run independent of a political party.” According to OSC, “a nonpartisan election could become partisan” if “one of the candidates in the election were to...seek or advertise a political party’s endorsement.” If OSC finds Newcomb in violation of the Act, it would instruct him to withdraw from the election or resign his federal position, or it could take enforcement action against him.

The ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties has filed a lawsuit on Newcomb’s behalf, arguing that it would violate the First Amendment to penalize Newcomb because other candidates, over whom he has no control, may exercise their right to seek or advertise a party’s endorsement.

“We understand the federal government has important interests in protecting the integrity of the civil service, but there has to be a limit,” said David Blair-Loy, legal director of the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties. “Federal employees still have First Amendment rights, and the government has no conceivable interest in prohibiting one of its employees from running a nonpartisan campaign for election to a small local school board. To keep Newcomb out of the race would violate the public’s fundamental right to choose qualified candidates for nonpartisan office.”

Newcomb graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 1987 and served as an active duty and reserve naval officer from May 1987 to June 2010. He is currently employed as an Acquisition Professional/Software Program Manager, Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command (SPAWAR) in San Diego. He lives in Alpine with his family and is dedicated to public education. He co-founded the Alpine Education Foundation, a nonprofit charity to support schools in Alpine, California, and has been involved with numerous community organizations, including the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center and San Diego Zoological Society.

The ACLU has filed a motion for temporary restraining order to protect Newcomb’s ability to stand for election in November. A hearing date on the motion has not been set.