The National Coalition Against Censorship issued a report, entitled “Political Science,” detailing censorship of government scientists, suppression and distortion of research, and retaliation and intimidation in federal science agencies, and the serious First Amendment implications of such practices.
The NCAC report comes in the wake of yet another disturbing incident of suppressed scientific speech, this time by the Federal Fish and Wildlife Service, which recently issued an internal memo to its biologists and other employees instructing them not to publicly discuss climate change, Arctic polar bears, or the status of sea ice, unless they are specifically authorized to do so. As reported in the New York Times, any employee for the service seeking permission to travel must now complete a form indicating that s/he “understands the administration’s position on climate change, polar bears, and sea ice and will not be speaking on or responding to these issues.”
“This directive is a violation of scientists’ free speech rights,” said Jay Dyckman, Director of The Knowledge Project at NCAC. “The government has the right to require its scientists to clarify that their opinions do not represent official government positions, but it cannot suppress information scientists produce simply because that information does not conform to the Administration’s policy goals.”
As “Political Science” illustrates, attempts at silencing scientific speech are not uncommon. Scientists who wished to participate on scientific panels convened by the World Health Organization and at the International AIDS conference last year in Toronto also confronted directives limiting their speech.
“Attendance at domestic and international scientific conferences is a critical component of exchanging scientific information, and government scientists should be permitted to do so without unreasonable constraints,” said NCAC Executive Director Joan Bertin. “Among other things, they should not be required to adhere to policy positions that conflict with the best scientific data available.” Bertin and Dyckman both noted that, in the case of the Fish and Wildlife Service and many other examples from other federal agencies, politically-motivated prior restraints on speech violate the principles of the First Amendment.
Such directives also conflict with the stated public service mission of the Fish and Wildlife Service “to conserve, protect and enhance fish, wildlife, and plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people.” As “Political Science” describes, government censorship of science can prove dangerous, violating not only democratic principles of free exchange of knowledge, but also public health.