Nonprofit Accuses USDA of Scientific Censorship

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‘     WASHINGTON (CN) – A U.S. Department of Agriculture policy ignored a petition to change a rule that unconstitutionally bottles up agency scientists” right to free speech, a nonprofit claims in court.
     Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, or PEER, claims the USDA unfairly ignored its petition challenging the agency”s “scientific integrity policy” and did not follow standards for public comment under the Administrative Procedure Act, according to a complaint filed Thursday in D.C. Federal Court.
     PEER advocates for federal employees who are “charged with the protection and study of America”s environment and natural resources,” according to the lawsuit.
     The Washington-based group grew concerned about a policy the USDA put out in 2009 that PEER says could muzzle scientists who wish to talk about topics the agency finds too controversial, even outside of their official capacities.
     “It”s an attempt by an agency to basically censor science and tailor facts to suit their agenda,” Jeff Ruch, executive director for PEER, said Friday.
     To counter this, PEER submitted a rulemaking petition to the USDA in March, which the agency then had to accept or reject in a reasonable time under the Administrative Procedures Act, or APA, Ruch said.
     Instead, the USDA responded in June and dismissed the petition without considering it, the nonprofit claims.
     PEER says the agency “completely disregarded” its arguments, alleging the USDA held that its rule only pertained to internal personnel matters and was therefore not subject to regulations of the APA.
     If the agency had simply denied their petition after considering it based on its merits, the case would likely not be in court, Ruch said.
     But Ruch pointed out the USDA has, in the past, publicly stated the importance of scientific integrity to its central mission. The USDA cannot claim the scientific integrity policy is a totally internal matter and also say publicly that it influences everything it does, he said.
     The 2009 policy came about in response to a White House directive for agencies to put together “appropriate rules and procedures to ensure the integrity of the scientific process within the agency,” according to Thursday”s lawsuit. The USDA allegedly insisted the policy it crafted to comply with this order ensured “scientific and technological findings should not be suppressed or altered.”
     But the nonprofit says in its complaint that one section of the policy would silence scientists by expressly restricting them from “making statements that could be construed as being judgments of or recommendations on USDA or any other federal government policy, either intentionally or inadvertently.”
     “The implications of [the policy] are myriad, as the provision is written broadly enough to cover any manner of suppression of valuable scientific discourse,” the lawsuit states.
     PEER claims the policy already had this effect when USDA leadership used it to block an agency entomologist from submitting an article to non-USDA scientific journals, according to the complaint.
     “Peer-reviewed journals are not official organs, and USDA scientists can use the agency affiliation for identification purposes only by including disclaimers that they are not representing agency views, but their own views as citizen scientists,” the 10-page complaint states. “Government scientists are simultaneously citizens with specific areas of expertise, allowing them to make important contributions to the discussion, be it technical or otherwise, of issues of public importance.”
     PEER also alleges the USDA did not provide public notice and allow for comment on the scientific integrity policy as required under the APA.
     The nonprofit seeks a court declaration setting aside the USDA”s denial of its petition and an order to disseminate the policy again, with notice and comment procedures in compliance with the APA. PEER is represented by Laura Dumais.
     A representative for the USDA did not respond to an emailed request for comment on the lawsuit.