The Progressive


A project of Common Dreams

For Immediate Release

Kate Hornyan or Steve Rubenstein (202) 265-7337

Lift Gag Order Muzzling NOAA Scientists

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


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Communications" which repealed a more liberal "open science" policy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

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

"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."

the PEER petition

View the
Commerce Public Communications Policy Note
exemption for National Weather Service Employees Organization members Examine PEER
petition to end constraints on NOAA Sea Grant recipients

Contrast U.S.
Fish & Wildlife Service right to publish See EPA
restraints on employee speech

Revisit EPA
censorship of employees' private YouTube posting Look at
Forest Service ban on answering media questions

Review Obama
signing statement prohibiting employee contact with Congress

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) is a national alliance of local state and federal resource professionals. PEER's environmental work is solely directed by the needs of its members. As a consequence, we have the distinct honor of serving resource professionals who daily cast profiles in courage in cubicles across the country.