Interior Loosens Gag on Employee Off-Duty Speech
New “Public Communications” Rules Leave Gray Areas Which May Chill Expression
Washington, DC — The U.S. Interior Department today unveiled rules to clarify lines of communication between its employees and the media or public, but the rules muddy the water in some key areas, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). While the new rules provide more openness than several other environmental and resource management agencies, they do not go as far as the rules adopted by others, such as the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
The new Interior policies are part of the slowly developing suite of scientific integrity policies announced by President Obama three years ago in March 2009. The rules, which go into immediate effect –
- Pledge “a culture of openness with the news media” in official communications, including allowing specialists in an official capacity to “freely and openly discuss scientific, scholarly, technical and management approaches, findings, and conclusions based on their official work”;
- “Encourage the publication of scientific, scholarly and technical information produced as a result of activities related to Departmental projects or programs”; and
- Forbid public affairs staff from altering “the substance of scientific, scholarly and technical information” while promising that “Scientists, scholars, engineers and other subject matter experts will be provided the opportunity to conduct a factual review of news releases concerning their work prior to publication to the extent practicable.”
“The Interior Department is raising the bar for official candor but not as high as we had hoped,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that there is no clear guidance for scientists on what they can disclose in a personal capacity nor is there any enforcement mechanism against reprisal when they do so.
Interior’s new policy also lacks any declaration that employees have the right to personal expression on matters within their official expertise or knowledge. Instead, the rules impose broad and confusing prohibitions on off-duty communications. For example –
- Employees are forbidden from disclosing anything covered by a Freedom of Information Act exemption, such as “pre-decisional” information. The rules discourage specialists from revealing any information not previously “published or otherwise publicly released by the Department”; and
- It is unclear whether employees may communicate in a personal capacity with news reporters during work hours or from an office terminal or phone, as use of official equipment or resources for unofficial expression may not be more than “negligible.”
“Under these rules, scientists can speak out so long as they don’t say anything new,” Ruch remarked, pointing out these provisos could greatly complicate or impede a scientist seeking to publish a paper in his or her own name using raw research data. “A scientist would have to consult a lawyer to know whether one could submit a paper for peer review, speak at a conference or answer questions from a reporter.”
Nonetheless, the new Interior rules are superior to the situation in some comparable agencies. For example, the U.S. Forest Service has an agency-wide gag rule forbidding all but the most trivial exchange with the media without Headquarters public affairs sign-off. The U.S. Environmental Agency has no rules governing media contact or publishing research, a deliberate ambiguity which often hushes its specialists. For nearly two years, EPA has promised that it will develop a coherent communications policy.
By contrast, Interior’s new rules seem more restrictive than the “open science” rules adopted by its own Fish & Wildlife Service back in 2009, guaranteeing its scientists freedom to publish and lecture with only a simple disclaimer. Interior’s policy also appears narrower than the public communications policy announced by NOAA this past December.
“It makes no sense that specialists in one environmental agency may freely write and speak but not in another.” Ruch concluded. “All public servants should be allowed to openly communicate with their true employers – the public.”