Lawsuit charging USDA censorship dismissed

The Jamie L. Whitten, Federal Building, U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C. A lawsuit that accused the USDA of censoring its scientists in violation of their free speech rights has been dismissed by a federal judge.

A lawsuit that accused the USDA of censoring its scientists in violation of their free speech rights has been dismissed by a federal judge.

Last year, the non-profit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, or PEER, filed a complaint claiming that USDA’s “scientific integrity policy” unconstitutionally muzzled scientists to appease “corporate stakeholders.”

The USDA policy, issued in 2013, states that “scientists should refrain 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.”

According to PEER, the policy effectively prohibited USDA researchers from making public statements about controversial subjects, stifling scientific discourse about agriculture.

Specifically, the complaint pointed to Jonathan Lundgren, an entomologist for USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, who was prevented from speaking publicly about certain subjects.

For example, USDA barred Lundgren from speaking to the media about the impact on non-target insects from crops that are genetically engineered to have pesticidal qualities, the complaint said.

The agency also did not allow Lundgren to publish a study about trends in biotechnology and U.S. biofuel policies, according to the lawsuit.

PEER asked a federal judge to void the “scientific integrity policy” because it violates the U.S. Constitution and administrative laws that require public notice and comment.

However, U.S. District Judge Christopher Cooper has thrown out the lawsuit because Lundgren has quit the USDA since the lawsuit was filed, which means PEER no longer has the legal standing to challenge the agency’s policy in court.

“At a minimum, what PEER must show is that at least one of its members is a USDA employee, subject to the policy, who is suffering or will in the near future suffer some injury as a result of the policy,” Cooper said.

Unless the non-profit identifies such an employee and revises its complaint, the harm to PEER is merely speculative, he said.

Jeff Ruch, PEER’s executive director, said that it may be able to identify another USDA employee affected by the policy but naming the person publicly would be problematic due to the potential for retaliation.

“We wouldn’t advise them to do it unless they feel like they have nothing to lose,” Ruch said.

The agency’s policy hasn’t improved scientific integrity but it has “increased paranoia” and effectively serves as a gag order on research that may affect federal policy, he said.

Lundgren, who now heads the Ecdysis Foundation research non-profit, said the policy impedes scientists from interpreting study results and putting them into context for the public.

There are other USDA scientists who are “fed up” with the policy, but many fear speaking out against it, he said.

“You’re throwing away a potentially long-term career with the agency if you challenge this,” Lundgren said.

A spokesperson for USDA said the integrity of its research is “paramount” to instilling confidence in the agency among policy-makers, the public and the scientific community.

“For these reasons, USDA has put in place a strong scientific integrity policy to promote a culture of excellence and transparency, including procedures for staff to report any perceived interference with their work, seek resolution, and receive protection from recourse for doing so. We stand by our policy,” the spokesperson said in an email.

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