Below is a song critical of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper (head of the Conservative Party), who’s famous for his dire environmental policies. As Wikipedia notes (and I’ll add the links):
The Conservative Party of Canada has made significant budget cuts to Environment Canada, leading to criticism that it is undermining the ability of departmental staff to enforce remaining environmental laws.
The CPC has also been accused of restricting the ability of government scientists to speak to the public, the media, and even other scientists, leading to criticism that they are trying to limit the debate on environmental issues by “silencing scientists”.
The silencing of scientists was explicitly directed to keeping them quiet about three issues: global warming, fisheries, and especially the Athabasca oil sands project, which has been bitterly opposed by environmentalists. While I suppose the government has the right to restrict what scientists say when they’re speaking as government employees, I can’t see that they have the right to do so when those scientists are speaking as individuals and not representing official policy. This kind of speech restriction would never stand up in the U.S., for instance.
Harper is muzzling scientists for one reason only: to prevent the free dissemination of scientific information and opinion that might be inimical to the government’s (i.e., Harper’s) interests. It’s repressive, and would, in the U.S., constitute a violation of the First Amendment. I suppose the Canadian constitution permits this, though I know Canadian scientists have demonstrated against it.
Enter Tony Turner, a scientist at Environment Canada, one of the agencies whose budget has been cut. Turner, apparently a fixture on the Ottawa music scene, wrote the following song, “Harperman,” criticizing the PM and calling for his ouster. As The Guardian notes (see also the article on the CBC News site):
The song, which is recorded with a backing choir and a double bass, with Turner himself on the guitar, contains lyrics like “no respect for environment / Harperman, it’s time for you to go”, and “no more cons, cons, cons / we want you gone, gone gone”.
The song is actually quite catchy, and doesn’t divulge and privileged scientific information:
So what happened? Turner was suspended and is now being investigated by the government. That’s McCarthy-esque behavior, and is reprehensible. Harper himself could, of course, reverse this decision, and the fact that he didn’t is even more evidence that it’s time for him to go. Meanwhile, Turner, under any reasonable code of behavior, has the right to privately express his scientific and political opinions. The CBC, which gives more information about the song (useful for non-Canadians), adds this:
Debi Daviau, president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC), confirmed to CBC News that Turner is under investigation. PIPSC is the union which represents federal scientists.
“[Environment Canada] is alleging … [Turner] has violated the departmental code of values and ethics in that the writing and performing of this song somehow impeded his ability to impartially study migratory birds,” she said.
“There doesn’t seem to be a lot of formal grounds to base this in and certainly the courts have been loud and clear on the matter of how public servants can legitimately participate in a federal election.”
A spokesperson for Environment Canada wouldn’t comment on the case, citing privacy, but said public servants are expected to comply with the values and ethics code, regardless of their job.
So is this silencing and punishment of scientists legal? The CBC has a FAQ site, posted last May, about muzzling government scientists. While they describe the new draconian directive, they don’t discuss at all whether this policy is legal.
In 2006, the Harper government introduced strict procedures around how its scientists are allowed to speak about their research to the media.
In the past, journalists were generally able to contact scientists directly for interviews, but after these new directives they had to go through government communications officers.
And scientists had to get pre-approval from their minister’s office before speaking to members of national or international media, a process that can involve drafting potential questions and answers, which are then scrutinized by a team before the green light is given.
. . . A 2014 study of media policies from 16 federal departments concluded that current policies place far more restrictions on Canadian scientists when it comes to talking to media than is the case with their U.S. counterparts.
Since the policy has stood for nearly ten years, I suspect it’s legal, or it would have been challenged in the courts, but I’m not sure. The CBC adds that “A complaint lodged by advocacy group Democracy Watch and the University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Clinic in 2013 led to the launch of an investigation by Canada’s information commissioner Suzanne Legault, which is still ongoing.” But I haven’t heard any results.
Perhaps some Candians, or Canadian scientists, can weigh in here and see if anything has been or can be done about this abrogation of free speech, and of the free dissemination of scientific opinion.