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For Immediate Release: Jul 12, 2010
Contact: Kirsten Stade (202) 265-7337

LIFT GAG ORDER MUZZLING NOAA SCIENTISTS

Rulemaking Petition to Commerce Secretary to Rescind Bush-Era Prior Restraints


Washington, DC — Federal marine and climate scientists should be able to speak and write without prior clearance by agency management, according to a rulemaking petition filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).  PEER is asking Commerce Secretary Gary Locke to rescind a Bush administration policy requiring National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and other agency scientists to obtain pre-approval to speak or write, whether on or off-duty, about scientific topics deemed “of official interest”.

In March 2007, the Bush Commerce Department issued an administrative order governing “Public Communications” which repealed a more liberal “open science” policy adopted by NOAA in 2006.  That order, which remains in effect and is the subject of the PEER petition, forbids scientists from disclosing information that has not been approved by the chain-of-command, even if they prepare it and deliver it on their own time as private citizens.  The order contains very limited exceptions for innocuous statements such as weather updates and answers to purely factual questions about previously approved reports.

“This is a gag order on scientists and has no place in an administration that claims to be transparent,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that the Commerce policy infringes on the First Amendment rights of scientists when speaking as private citizens, and violates President Obama’s own 2009 directive on Scientific Integrity.  “NOAA should operate under an ‘open science’ rather than a ‘no comment’ policy.”  As the most recent example of the need for greater candor, PEER points to media constraints that NOAA imposed on its staff and contractors concerning subsurface plumes in the wake of the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

In addition, PEER argues, the Commerce policy is internally confusing and unevenly applied.  For example, National Weather Service employees covered by a collective bargaining agreement are exempt but non-union positions are covered.  In addition to its own employees, NOAA also restricts academic researchers who receive its Sea Grants from engaging in any “advocacy” activities under vague guidelines that it still employs. In December 2009, PEER petitioned NOAA to lift this gag order in the name of both free speech and academic freedom but NOAA has yet to act on the question.

By contrast, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, in response to scandals on political alteration of its scientific studies, has adopted a policy of removing any prior “policy review” of research or other work published by its employees if accompanied by a simple disclaimer.  

“If Fish & Wildlife Service scientists can publish without management screening, why can’t NOAA scientists?” asked Ruch, pointing out that in its own “Open Government” plan this April, the Commerce Department said that it would clarify “how employees should respond to common questions and what type of communications require approval…”  “Our petition urges Secretary Locke to make good on his pledge by letting the specialists who work with him candidly communicate with their true employers – the American people.”