The Free Speech Center

First Amendment News and Insights from MTSU

University of Florida

Columbia University’s climate censorship tracker has now documented more than 300 instances of silenced science within the Environmental Protection Agency and other government agencies since November 2016. Fourteen of those were from Florida, including scientists reporting they’d been told not to use the words “climate change” in public documents and programs.

"I and my colleagues and students who cover science find that even the agencies most helpful in the past, such as U.S. Geological Survey, now routinely prohibit scientists from speaking publicly about their work, particularly on climate change," said Cynthia Barnett, environmental journalist in residence at the University of Florida's College of Journalism and Communications. 

"These troubling trends are well-known in our colleges of journalism and law; the First Amendment is likewise a familiar topic in humanities courses from art to civics and religion," said Barnett, who organized UF's program on the topic with a 1 for All grant. "But undergraduates in the sciences, engineering and health may not encounter free speech in professional curriculum. The Science: Unsilenced series set out to raise awareness and ignite campus conversations around these issues in the hard sciences." 

UF’s College of Journalism and Communications partnered with the Bob Graham Center for Public Service; the Florida Climate Institute; the UF Department of Geological Sciences; and UF Health on a series of speakers and events in April 2019 designed to expand the breadth of disciplines and stakeholders who feel ownership in the First Amendment and its protections. Events included:

Film screening: The series launched on April 15 with staggered lunch-time pizza parties in Frazier-Rogers Hall, one of UF’s hubs for the natural sciences, inviting science students to view the film series “Let Science Speak,” a documentary and campaign outlining censorship and other perils facing America’s environmental scientists. Watching the series were 75 students and faculty members, with the highest turnout from the sciences. Faculty were invited to show the series or segments in classrooms that week. And, in a partnership with one of Gainesville’s large public high schools, Eastside High, the series was screened in environmental-science classes every day that week in recognition of Earth Day. Everyone was invited back later in the week for a Q&A with the creator and producer, Christine Arena. (The high school students weren’t able to come; they engaged with their teacher on the issue of free speech in the sciences for the entire week.)

Science: Unsilenced panel: The marquee program was April 16 at the Bob Graham Center for Public Service, UF's hub for civic engagement. Moderated by climate scientist Andrea Dutton, the Science: Unsilenced panel featured two censored scientists — Joel Clement, the first whistleblower of the Trump administration, and retired Florida DEP scientist Connie Bersok — along with UF Brechner Center for Freedom of Information director Frank LoMonte for a discussion on the spectrum of censorship scientists are experiencing, the protections they have or lack, and solutions.

Joel Clement, whistleblower.

Clement served for seven years as an executive at the U.S. Department of the Interior before his public resignation charging retaliation for disclosing the perilous impacts of climate change. Bersok, a 30-year employee of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, had been suspended after her critical memo against a wetlands permit. This panel drew more than 80 students, faculty and members of the public, with others watching via Facebook live. "We were thrilled with the depth and relevance of the conversation and audience engagement," said Barnett. You can download the video here.

Film and producer talk and Q&A, Let Science Speak: On April 17 the series continued with a third showing of Let Science Speak, this time with a virtual talk and Q&A with producer Christine Arena of San Francisco. (Arena was hosted virtually to save money, and also to help certify Science: Unsilenced as a sustainable event via the UF Office of Sustainability given the subject matter.) This program drew a little over 50 students and faculty to UF’s main library for Arena’s talk and a vigorous Q&A that included scientists and graduate and undergraduate students. Arena helped carry the conversation beyond censorship to its solutions, particularly helping the public and lawmakers understand shared values surrounding free speech and government accountability, and what society risks in not having access to credible science.

Physicians and the First Amendment panel: The final event, also on April 17, involved a lecture at UF’s health-sciences complex with Sonja R. West, Otis Brumby Distinguished Professor in First Amendment Law at the University of Georgia School of Law, on free-speech issues surrounding the health professions. "We reached out to Prof. West with Florida’s 'docs-and-glocks' law (now struck down) in mind," said Barnett, referring to the legislation that prevented doctors from talking with their patients about guns. "We didn’t realize how much deeper free-speech concerns have become for the health professions.

Sonja R. West discusses doctors' free speech with Dr. Matthew Ryan​.

Professor West tailored her program for us to include not only the firearm gag laws, but other efforts to legislate health providers’ speech around the nation, from restrictions on providing abortion information to those on discussing the impacts of fracking on health." This panel drew 35 medical and other students and doctors, who joined a frank roundtable afterward with West; Dr. Matthew Ryan, a medical school professor and chief of emergency services at UF; and LoMonte from the Brechner Center. Dr. Ryan was particularly passionate about the importance of being able to discuss any and all issues with patients who land in his ER. 

Science: Unsilenced story tips portal: As part of the Science: Unsilenced project, Barnett and LoMonte also created a secure portal through the college’s Brechner Center for Freedom of Information to allow government researchers to submit stories of attempts to restrict or prohibit scientific research, education or discussion — or the publication or other use of science — in Florida. Barnett's students will pursue one of those tips in her next environmental journalism class.

Overall impact: "What seems most important about Science: Unsilenced is the extent to which it allowed UF’s College of Journalism and Communications and Bob Graham Center for Public Service to connect with faculty and students in engineering, the sciences and health on our shared values of free speech and pursuit of truth," Barnett reported. "We have projects with these divisions when it comes to PR and helping scientists tell their stories. But it will take a deeper understanding of these shared values to build collaborations to overcome threats to free speech, gaps in information and knowledge, and the loss of trust we are all experiencing." 

In an email after the series, a professor, Tom Mareci of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology put it this way: “The events were both informative and entertaining, but mainly very enlightening … . Some of my students and colleagues are unaware of this censorship. Personally, I find this censorship deeply disturbing. Americans do not approve when people are told they cannot express their opinions. Perhaps this story should be revisited.”

The organizers of Silence: Unsilenced agreed.

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