Folks at the United States Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service received an email Monday morning from their chief of staff telling them not to talk to the public about their work.
The ARS solves agricultural problems, like balancing fertilizer and water use, developing healthier plants, and protecting the beloved honeybees. The email seems to join other attempts by the Trump administration to stifle executive agency communications.
BuzzFeed, which received the email communication from an unnamed source, reports:
“Starting immediately and until further notice, ARS will not release any public-facing documents,” Sharon Drumm, chief of staff for ARS, wrote in a department-wide email shared with BuzzFeed News.
“This includes, but is not limited to, news releases, photos, fact sheets, news feeds, and social media content,” she added.
While this is being interpreted as a freeze on all communications with the public, the USDA-ARS press office wasn’t sure the email was any different from existing protocol. “The communication was shared with our scientists yesterday but there hasn’t ben a change in policy,” Christopher Bentley, director of the ARS’ office of communications, told Gizmodo. As for now, “it’s business as usual and information that routinely clears through the office of communications will continue to do so,” like public facing press releases and fact sheets, he said. However, he will be digging deeper today to determine if there were any changes. Meanwhile, the ARS’ twitter account has not sent a tweet since January 20.
The Freedom of Information Act requires the USDA make almost all documents available to requestors—such a move surely stands in opposition to the act. However, just yesterday Gizmodo reported that the Trump Administration froze all EPA grants and told staffers not to speak with the public.
BuzzFeed points out that the agency funds some projects relating to climate change, such as cutting greenhouse gas emissions from cows. President Trump tapped former Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue to lead the USDA—Perdue wrote that climate change has “become a running joke among the public, and liberals have lost all credibility when it comes to climate science” in the National Review in 2014.
As this news only just broke, Bentley requested more time to look into the email. We will update the post from when we hear back from him and the other USDA-ARS folks we reached out to.
Update 1:33PM: Bentley sent Gizmodo this formal statement in an email.
ARS issued an internal email to employees on Jan. 23 (text follows below) about Agency informational products like news releases and social media content. Scientific publications, released through peer reviewed professional journals are not included. As the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s chief scientific in-house research agency, ARS values and is committed to maintaining the free flow of information between our scientists and the American public as we strive to find solutions to agricultural problems affecting America. Information on our projects, people, and locations are available on our website as always, at www.ars.usda.gov.
On Jan 23, 2017, at 12:58 PM, Drumm, Sharon - ARS wrote:
Hello again All - Starting immediately and until further notice, ARS will not release any public-facing documents. This includes, but is not limited to, news releases, photos, fact sheets, news feeds, and social media content.
Please contact Director of Communications Chris Bentley with any questions about this guidance. Please also transmit to your employees as soon as feasible.
Update 5:29PM: Reuters reports that the USDA said the initial email was “flawed,” and that “This internal email was released without Departmental direction, and prior to Departmental guidance being issued,” according to a statement. “ARS will be providing updated direction to its staff.” Mashable reports that the initial order stood in direct conflict with the USDA’s Scientific Integrity Policy, “encouraging, but not requiring, USDA scientists to communicate with the media about their scientific findings.”
Update 1/25/2017 8:37AM: The USDA rescinded the ban via an email to its employees yesterday evening. BuzzFeed reports:
“Yesterday, we sent an email message about Agency informational products like news releases and social media content,” [Chavonda Jacobs-Young, ARS administrator] wrote in the email, which was shared with BuzzFeed News. “This internal email was released prior to receiving official Departmental guidance and is hereby rescinded.”
The ban was not reviewed by Michael Young, deputy administrator of the USDA, who would “not have put that kind of guidance out” according to the Washington Post.
However, one source told Gizmodo that some restrictions still remain. “We are still embargoed from certain forms of communications, such as posting any notices in the Federal Register,” said the US Forest Service Director in an email, who requested their name be withheld. (The Forest Service is part of the USDA). On top of new regulations, officials occasionally “notify the public of public meetings, meetings of Federal Advisory Committees (FACA) and contract offerings (for the Forest Service, stuff like timber sales),” in the register.
“I have been in the Forest Service for decades and during political transitions things like hiring freezes are common, as are reviews of regulations. No biggie usually, we’re professionals and we roll with it,” they said. “In this case, the clamp-down has been weirdly draconian.”