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April 2000 Planet Main
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  April 2000 Features:
Sequoia Protection At Hand
Club Leader Wins Right to Speak
Livestock Antibiotics Can Threaten Human Health
Big-Biz Promises
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The Planet
Club Leader Wins Right to Speak

by Jenny Coyle

About 1.6 million federal employees should be shaking hands with Jeffrey van Ee: His recent court victory will protect their right to free speech.

Ten years ago, van Ee - a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency employee and long-time activist in the Sierra Club's Toiyabe Chapter in Nevada - thought something was suspicious about a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plan for the desert tortoise, an endangered species.

Fish and Wildlife was going to accept $400,000 from rocket-fuel manufacturer Kerr-McGee to monitor 11 tortoises that would be relocated from a vacant industrial site that Kerr-McGee wanted to occupy. On his own time and without identifying himself as a Sierra Club member (he was group conservation chair at the time), van Ee told Fish and Wildlife officials that the money would be better spent protecting the habitat of the desert tortoise. Studies had shown that relocated tortoises don't thrive.

The EPA slapped van Ee with a gag order and put a reprimand in his file, charging that to criticize another agency while representing a nonprofit group was a felony and a conflict of interest.

Van Ee pursued the administrative appeal process and five years later the EPA removed the letter of reprimand from his file. But that wasn't enough for van Ee.

"I decided that I didn't want this to happen ever again to myself or to another federal employee," he said. So he contacted the American Civil Liberties Union.

Appearing before a U.S. District Court judge, van Ee's attorneys compared the government's position to an Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy routine. "I could be at a (Fish and Wildlife) meeting and whisper something in the ear of a Sierra Club representative, and they could say exactly what I had said and it would be legal," van Ee explained. "If I said it on behalf of the Club, it would be a felony."

But the district court upheld the EPA's interpretation of the law, so van Ee appealed the decision. On Feb. 8 the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., overturned the lower court and ruled that Congress never intended for the law to be interpreted so strictly. The court said that federal employees have the right to represent nonprofit organizations before other federal agencies on issues not related to their job.

The government displayed a certain naivete during the process, van Ee said.

"The federal government argued every step of the way that it had to do this because it needed to make sure that the public maintained faith in its government," he said. "If the EPA thinks suppressing the freedom of speech of one lowly worker will enhance public confidence in govern- ment's competence, guess again. Public confidence will be ensured when the public thinks all parts of the government are fairly considering and debating all of its information and evidence."

"Jeff has been extremely courageous in sticking with this," said Lois Snedden, a member of the Toiyabe Chapter and former Club board member. "I think this takes a tremendous burden off other activists. It just makes you proud to work with someone who is so dedicated."

Van Ee said an appeal of the February decision is possible, but not likely.

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