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Protecting Whistleblowers since 1977

MetroWest Daily News (MA): Protecting Science and Whistleblowers

April 24, 2006
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By GAP Legal Director Tom Devine and GAP Communications Director Dylan Blaylock This editorial also appeared in the: Summit Daily News (CO), Daily Herald (TN), Couer d'Alene Press (ID), Spectrum and Daily News (UT), and Key West Citizen (FL).

In 1530, Nicholas Copernicus wrote a scientific work suggesting that the universe did not revolve around the earth. Unfortunately, out of fear of political and social retaliation, he failed to widely publish his findings, robbing the world of scientific progress. One-hundred years later, Galileo realized the value of Copernicus’ theory and publicized it. Sadly, Galileo’s actions cost him his freedom, as he was found guilty of heresy and subjected to house arrest by officers of the Inquisition.

Stifling or censoring new, fact-based scientific theories due to political or religious beliefs is counterproductive. Actions like these keep society stagnant while an open exchange of ideas supports economic, political and intellectual progress. Public servants should advance progress, not block it.

Fast-forward to present day America. Right now, government bureaucrats are gagging America’s scientists from speaking with anyone outside agency walls unless granted advance permission. Public affairs officers censor and rewrite scientific reports. For instance, some agencies have even given orders to avoid using the term “global warming.”

The simple fact is that these acts of censorship are illegal. When employees speak as private citizens, rather than agency spokespersons, they are protected by the First Amendment. The Whistleblower Protection Act (WPA) and other laws flatly ban this type of type of censorship and its enforcement by repression.

Unfortunately, the WPA has proven not to be worth the paper it’s written on. The WPA, the strongest occupational free speech law in history, has been gutted and manipulated into a trap. Rulings have gone against whistleblowers relying on it in 119 of the last 120 decisions on the merits.

Both Senate and House committees have approved legislation that upgrades enforcement of the rights of government whistleblowers through direct access to federal courts. But in back room deals, Senate and House leaders yielded to the Bush administration’s demands not to schedule votes of almost certain unanimous approval, hoping the public wouldn’t notice.

The public did notice though, when political handlers at NASA went too far, trying to restrain its top climate scientist, Dr. James Hansen, from speaking out about future global warming-induced natural disasters. NASA, in response to public outrage, declared they would institutionalize free speech rights for all staff. Unfortunately, the “free speech” policy they issued doesn’t pass legal muster and contains an all-encompassing loophole.

But NASA is not the only agency codifying repression. Openly illegal gag orders are on the books at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, EPA, and the Interior Department. Employees at the U.S. Climate Change Science Program, the head agency for ensuring the human race does not make this planet uninhabitable, fear retaliation.

Interestingly, the individual who has the best chance to cement government free speech rights is new Supreme Court Associate Justice Samuel Alito. In March, the Supreme Court reheard a case from last October, Garcetti v. Ceballos, where the issue at stake is whether any public employee enjoys free speech rights for job duties. Ceballos, a former Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney, was retaliated against for following his legal obligation to report that the government was cheating in a criminal prosecution.

The widely-accepted speculation for the case’s rehearing is that Alito, who was not on the bench the first time around, is needed to break a 4-4 tie. The decision will lay the constitutional foundation for free speech rights by government workers. This vital decision appears now to solely rest on Alito’s judgment, with the decision expected in a couple of months.

Americans do not live in the 16th century and the human race no longer has the luxury of waiting another hundred years, or even a decade, to face facts. We must act now. Freedom of government employee and scientific speech, including genuine whistleblower protection, is a necessity to prevent avoidable catastrophes. When bureaucracies have the freedom to harass and silence scientific messengers, replacing them with double-speak by political appointees, our opportunity to understand and deal with the future is stolen from us. We can only hope Justice Alito feels the same way.

The administration’s failure to gag some scientists is grounds for hope. This is a war on science that the public must win.

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