By Hunter Frint
In January 2017, the Trump administration put a hold on publications from the Environmental Protection Agency and other environmental departments. Since Trump has taken office, his viewpoints on environmental protections and climate change have been a concern to the scientific community. In June he announced that the U.S. would withdrawal from the Paris climate deal, making the U.S. the only country initially involved with the agreement to oppose it. The Trump administration also announced they would begin repealing former President Barack Obama’s environmental protection plan without a solid replacement plan. With an obvious lack of support for environmental concerns, the gag order in the beginning of the year set a precedent for what was to come.
What was the gag order? And why?
The week of Trump’s inauguration, memos were sent out to the EPA, the Department of the Interior, the Department of Agriculture (USDA), as well as the department of Health and Human Services. According to the New York Times, the memos ordered the agencies to refrain from sending out news releases or publishing social media posts, blog entries or web content until directed to do so. It also demanded that they speak with senior officials before communicating with news outlets.
The orders to reduce the spread of information on Jan. 20 were not government-wide, however, and the Guardian reported that the agencies that were issued the commands seemed to all have one thing in common.
“One possible connection between the affected agencies appears to be the fact that all five published data with relation to climate change, the EPA being first on that list,” The Guardian wrote.
What were the reactions?
There were a variety of reactions following Trump’s EPA gag order, from petitions to alternative and “rogue” Twitter accounts. Although some were not verified, these alternative Twitter accounts were reportedly started up by agencies including NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA), the U.S. Forest Service, and several others.
In relation to outright “rogue” accounts, the official NPS account retweeted tweets criticizing Trump’s inauguration and the removal of the NPS section on the White House webpage. The Badlands NPS Twitter account also tweeted information of its own with a steady stream of scientific facts relating to climate change. Following these incidents, the Department of the Interior ordered the NPS to temporarily shut down its Twitter accounts.
The following day, Jan. 21, the NPS resumed tweeting after removing the retweets and issuing an apology that stated: “We regret the mistaken RTs from our account yesterday and look forward to continuing to share the beauty and history of our parks with you.”
Other reactions to the EPA gag were slightly less benign, but used the power of publication in newspaper opinion sections to get their point across. Bob Magill, president of The Society of Environmental Journalists, wrote a letter to the New York Times in response to the gag where he touched on the importance of unrestricted speech, including that from governmental agencies:
“Any public information lockdown is an affront to both the spirit of the Freedom of Information Act and the public trust. The public is entitled to accurate information about polluters and how the government is enforcing environmental laws. Americans rely on journalists to bring them this information, so it is important that journalists have access to federal agency officials, government scientists and scientific data.
We reject the E.P.A. gag order. Our members will continue to reach out to federal agencies and hope that the Trump administration will commit itself to an open line of communication with both journalists and the public.”
Were these reactions overreactions?
Becket Adams, a commentary writer for the Washington Examiner carried a much different view than Magill. Adams wrote an opinion piece for the conservative newspaper titled, “Media Freakout: EPA ‘standard practice’ called a ‘gag order’ by reporters.” He denied that the Trump Administration had even issued a gag order and had this to say about the media reaction:
“One more time, for good measure: Media have got to be more careful covering the Trump White House. If every story is handled like it’s the worst thing since Watergate, and if reporters light their hair on fire for every new development, including the ones that are actually not that worrisome, readers will eventually tune it all out as white noise.
When readers do that, and they stop paying attention, those in power will have more room to do as they please, which is precisely what the Fourth Estate is supposed to guard against.”
And Adams wasn’t the only one. The USDA told Scientific American that the temporary suppression of publication is something that happens at the transition of every administration.
“What happened yesterday was a misunderstanding,” Christopher Bentley, director of communications for the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, told Scientific American the day after the initial news coverage.
However, many media outlets and scientists did not take this at face value. Deputy Director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, Michael Halpern, insisted to Scientific American that there has never been a ban on scientific information.
“The USDA scientific integrity policy states that political appointees or any other employees cannot interfere with dissemination of scientific research results,” Halpern said to Scientific American. “This includes not just scientific publications, but also other ways of communicating with the public that are more accessible and have a broader reach.”