Jeff Ruch, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility
Jeff Ruch is executive director of PEER, a service organization helping federal, state, and local agency scientists, law enforcement officers, land managers, and other professionals uphold environmental values within public service.
Monday, 11 Dec 2000
Most days begin with a phone call. This particular call came from an Arizona State Parks naturalist named Matt Chew. Like many people who call PEER for the first time, Matt had a problem, a big problem. He had just been handed a notice of termination, effective three days hence. His offense was free speech — or, even worse, published free speech.
Matt had written an essay which appeared the previous month in the Boston Globe. The subject of the essay was the wildly popular new state park at Kartchner Caverns, outside of Phoenix. The essay, titled “A Theme Park Grows Beneath the Ground,” discussed the inherent trade-offs of high human visitation on natural places.
State Parks Director Kenneth Travous ordered Chew’s termination on the grounds that the piece brought “discredit and embarrassment to the State.” Director Travous did offer Matt an out — Travous proposed that in lieu of dismissal Matt could first resign and then “enter into an Independent Consultation Agreement” for $10,000, if Chew would promise to “refrain from any further communication with [the media] regarding the past, present or future activities of Parks or its employees…” The document also stipulated that the terms of the agreement must remain secret.
Matt did not sign the hush-money contract. Instead he called PEER. Within 36 hours of Matt’s call, I assembled a legal team anchored by one of the best law firms in Phoenix. Faced with the threat of this legal counterattack, state officials caved (as it were) on the eve of the appeal hearing — Arizona State Parks reinstated Matt Chew with full back pay and benefits.
Not every case is as dramatic as Matt Chew’s. More often, I see public agencies working behind the scenes to intimidate employees from sharing information with the public — their true employers. Agencies typically use gag orders or vaguely worded nondisclosure policies as the principal tool to keep their people quiet.
I see public servants in environmental agencies as the public’s paid experts and eyewitnesses. When these specialists cannot speak out about environmental problems, we are all deprived of vital information affecting our health and well being. Usually, this information is embarrassing to the very agencies charged with enforcing pollution protections, because bad news implies or demonstrates negligence or worse on behalf of the department. As a result, agencies erect intricate barriers against the free flow of information and enact policies to punish public employees who commit the crime of candor.
Fortunately, these bureaucratic restraints on speech rarely survive in the full light of day. In order to ensure effective exposure, PEER helps conscientious public servants free vital information that is otherwise locked away in cubicles, laboratories and field stations.
Not surprisingly, my phone stays pretty busy.