Published on
The Capital Times (Madison, Wisc.)

Don’t Let Obama’s EPA Silence Critics

Louis Clark

In late October, lawyers Allan Zabel and Laurie Williams exercised their First Amendment right of free speech when they posted a YouTube video criticizing the proposed cap-and-trade emissions program. But the Environmental Protection Agency, which has employed both Zabel and Williams for 20 years, ordered them to take it down and remove from it mention of their work experience.

Zabel and Williams made it quite clear that their views were their own, and did not represent the views of the agency. In mentioning their work experience, they were doing no more than establishing their identities, which is the right of all citizens to do. The EPA's shocking reaction continues the legacy of notorious Bush-era policies that ruthlessly tried to limit free speech for government workers -- especially those having to do with climate change dangers.

In 2005 the Bush administration attempted to muzzle the world's most famous climate scientist, Jim Hansen. As a top scientist at NASA, he publicly commented on data which convinced him that 2005 was one of the hottest years on record. At a climate science conference he also observed, "In my more than three decades in the government, I have never seen anything approaching the degree to which information flow from scientists to the public has been screened and controlled as it is now."

As Hansen accurately observed and courageously protested, the public affairs offices at certain environmental science-oriented government agencies were imposing strict rules on employees. These included requiring that all press inquiries be referred to public affairs offices, which would then determine which staff could "most appropriately" answer the inquiries. The public affairs offices went so far as to demand that any scientist who did submit to interviews must allow public affairs officials to sit in during taping.

Later, a 24-year-old NASA public affairs employee, whose only qualification for his position was that he had volunteered for the 2004 Bush re-election campaign, ordered Hansen to shut up and follow the rules or suffer "dire consequences." However, the scientist refused to remain silent about the dire consequences of climate change. When the official was found to have lied about having a college degree, the absurdity of such an under-qualified neophyte ordering a world-famous public servant to suppress his views became obvious even to the Bush administration. NASA quickly backed down, largely reworking its policy and forcing the public affairs employee to resign.

At the same time, the EPA, which had established a similar gag on its employees, refused to reconsider its policy, and it still stands today -- despite the rhetoric of a memo from its top administrator indicating a new day had arrived at the agency.

A few days ago, EPA managers apparently relied on this Bush-era public affairs relic to force Zabel and Williams to withdraw their video. Simply put, by accepting government employment, federal employees should not be forced to give up their First Amendment freedoms, their rights under whistle-blower protection laws, their freedom to communicate with Congress, or their rights under anti-gag legislation that protects them from government officials who abuse their authority. On all four counts, the EPA actions against the San Francisco attorneys violate the law.

Obviously, even if the EPA did not learn anything from the Hansen public affairs fiasco at NASA, the election of President Barack Obama and his several pronouncements on freedom of speech for scientists and other federal employees should have brought a "teaching moment" to whomever decided to silence Zabel and Williams. Now in the clear light of a sunnier day, cool heads will surely prevail. We should all hope that the previous administration's efforts to suppress contrary opinion on climate change will finally give way to a new dawn of transparency and genuine professional freedom of speech.

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Louis Clark is the President of the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistle-blower protection organization.

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