Preface: They Wanted Me Out; Now I’m Out
They say the ironies never cease. Did you know that freedom of speech, that cornerstone of the American Constitution, is practically irrelevant in the American government? Prisoners, illegal aliens, and racists have freedom of speech pursuant to the First Amendment. Civil servants? Not so much, which is doubly ironic because: 1) the First Amendment originally applied only to the federal government, and 2) the First Amendment is enforced by the federal government.
Of course, some speech can be treacherous enough to be unconstitutional, no matter who you are. You’re not allowed to yell “fire” in a crowded theatre, at least not as a prank. And even most prisoners, undocumented immigrants, and yes, lowly federal employees would question the right to hate speech, certain heavy-metal lyrics, and treasonous rhetoric.
But we’re not talking here about any of the obvious scenarios in which free speech may be illegal or odious. What Americans need to know is that, if you’re a federal employee and the boss doesn’t want you saying, for example, “clean coal is an oxymoron,” you won’t be saying it for long. Not on the job, at least, where the vast majority of your professional expertise should be used. And maybe not elsewhere, either, depending on the length of the agency’s tentacles.
What this means is that taxpayers cannot expect their civil servants to tell them the truth, especially the whole truth. On some topics, federal employees can’t even tell each other the truth! You could be the foremost expert on a topic of grave concern to humanity, but if you’re a federal employee and the boss is more concerned about climbing the ladder than delivering the truth, humanity be damned.
If you didn’t know the First Amendment was sawed off for federal employees, you’re certainly not alone. In fact, most federal employees don’t even know. Oddly enough, the most experienced ones are the least likely to know. How could that be? Because the First Amendment worked fine in the halls of government until 2006, when the U.S. Supreme Court decided it shouldn’t. Some of the older bureaucrats never got the memo—this is probably the first they’ve heard of it—whereas younger bureaucrats were practically born into this brave new world.
The case was Garcetti v. Ceballos, whereby five Supreme Court justices choked most of the life out of government employees’ freedom of speech. The other four stuck with a less cynical vision of our constitutional democracy, asserting that the First Amendment applies fully to everyone in the United States, with exceptions pertaining to the type of speech, not to who is speaking. They must have felt strongly about it too, and for more reasons than one. Garcetti was one of those rare cases for which three separate dissents were written; namely by Justices Stevens, Souter, and Breyer. (Justice Ginsburg joined Souter’s dissent.)
I didn’t know my First Amendment rights to freedom of speech had been terminated on the job at U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service headquarters until I started getting the gag orders. But once the gag orders started turning into reprimands and suspensions, I really knew.
But I’m no longer a federal employee—my “tour of duty” is six years in the rear-view mirror— and now I’m going to help Americans discover why and how the political appointees running our government agencies suppress the truth, abuse their authority, destroy agency morale, and forsake the taxpayer in more ways than one. All with the blessing of the Supreme Court—albeit a heavily contested, slimmest possible majority thereof.
The truths revealed herein will likely be shocking to many. Government suppression of speech takes the form of a never-ending soap opera, and with real-life, disastrous consequences. We’ve all heard the jingle attributed to Sir Walter Scott, circa 1800, “Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.” Herein I’ll duly report on a 21st century tangled web of bureaucratic deceit, woven by political appointees, bought and paid for by the American public.
If you think these topics will be troubling for you, don’t feel too bad. It could be worse: You could be me. The act of writing this book was an exceptional downer for yours truly, the recipient of the political suppression in question and the subject of a long-running series of bureaucratic beatings. For me, this was no mere analysis of subject matter, but a psychological plunge back into an icy pool of disrespect, humility, and frustration.
In case the phrase “gag order” is unclear, it is simply a directive, a demand, an order per se to cease and desist from all communications pertaining to a particular topic. The phrase is used most often in the context of legal proceedings, when the parties to a lawsuit—as well as their attorneys—are gagged by court order.
Probably the next most common use of the phrase is in the government, at least since Garcetti v. Ceballos. The political appointee or bureaucrat who issues a gag order will euphemistically call it a “memorandum of expectations.” When I received my first one, I confided in a higher-level official about the implications of this shocking memo. Once I described the memo, he immediately replied, “Oh, you got a gag order?!”
After my fourth one, it occurred to me that everyone in government should have to experience a gag order for a month or two, in order to develop an understanding of the psychological impact and sociological effects in the workplace. While at first a gag order can be simply frustrating, it has the potential to become depressing, torturous, and even ruinous. A gag order can become like a cancer, metastasizing into the employee’s body of work, crippling the employee’s career, taking a toll on personal life, and ultimately harming the agency as well. The political appointee or bureaucratic chief who would gag a hardworking civil servant should have a taste of the medicine before prescribing such a sickening “cure.”
Of course, not all gag orders are created equal. What if a tax-paid—and extremely well-paid— employee droned ad nauseum about his first car, or maybe his high school football-playing days, accomplishing nothing in the process and wasting the time of captive co-workers? Presumably the employee could cease and desist, in order to continue drawing a handsome salary and benefits. Even then, though, the issuance of a formal gag order would hardly be necessary. Assuming capable leadership was available, the employee would get the message that, “You’re boring people and wasting our time.”
Now, however, imagine you spent five years of Ph.D. research and post-doctoral studies on a topic that virtually everyone—even the ones doing the gagging—agreed was essential to the mission of your agency and critical to the nation’s environmental and economic wellbeing. That’s five years of time, money, and intensive effort and determination.
Imagine, further, that your expertise on the topic was one of the reasons you were hired by the agency to begin with. Imagine that leadership in the agency was originally supportive of advancing the topic to the broader agency, policymakers, and the public.
Imagine, too, that you’d been invited to speak on the topic at dozens of universities around the world. You’d given keynote addresses at numerous scientific, professional conferences, and you’d addressed the General Assembly of the United Nations. You’d spoken about the topic with Cabinet-level officials, economic advisors to the President, and a dozen or so diplomats. You’d often been encouraged and even exhorted by these higher officials to keep the discussion going, due to the crucial nature of the topic.
Then, imagine that the leadership in your agency—a tiny corner of the world—was replaced practically overnight by a bureaucratically inbred chain of command that collectively acted like a bull in a china shop. Imagine this chain of command treating the agency like its oyster for personal enjoyment, running roughshod over previous programs and priorities. Finally, imagine getting a gag order pertaining to your hard-earned, expensive expertise.
Now that’s the type of gag order everyone in government should experience, especially the political appointees and the various “chiefs” in position to short-circuit the First Amendment.
Based on what you’ve read thus far, you may get the impression that this civil servant, at least, wasn’t easily gagged. And you’re right. Every change of supervisor, every relevant issue that arose, even the slow passage of time…always there were reasons to test the waters with the “800-Pound Gorilla” (to be revealed in Chapter 1). My reluctance to abide by the gag orders—along with ham-handed agency leadership—explains the frequency, number, and severity of the gag orders I accumulated. It literally got to the point where I was hardly allowed to talk about anything, with anyone!
Career in shambles, I was put on such a short leash that the chafing of my neck became nearly unbearable. By then, in early 2016, I was seldom seen smiling in the hallways, especially with chiefs around.
As if that wasn’t enough to make me want to retire, I was informed in indirect yet perfectly clear terms that I should retire, or at least resign from the agency. I had sunk 20 years—over a third of my life—into federal service, with a passionate interest in raising awareness of the 800-Pound Gorilla. Furthermore, I was only a few years away from retirement eligibility with full federal benefits. And now, career in tatters, workplace relations spoiled, and surrounded by ladder-climbing supervisors, it looked like I was going to have to call it quits.
But I didn’t. I performed every demeaning task slathered onto my plate. During my final two years of federal service, I did secretarial work, edited briefing statements, and handled various logistics. Not that I did so cheerfully. I’d been harassed, hamstrung, and humiliated. I’d had my job title changed and my duties downgraded. I’d been moved to a stuffy little office without windows, and then to a cubicle. I’d been taken off teams and prevented from networking with other agencies. My name disappeared from contact lists and I’d been removed from any consideration of advancement. And, although I wasn’t in it for the money, I’d lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in salary that, in a reasonably progressive environment with career advancement based upon merit, would have accrued by then.
But I didn’t quit. I kept my mouth shut and my head down and I did the job, biding my time.
One veteran co-worker who knew some of the story said simply, “I don’t know how you do it,” and I’m sure a few others wondered the same. Yet most staff had no idea what was happening, and such is the essence of gag ordering. I and the 800-Pound Gorilla had become an afterthought to agency leadership. Head down and taciturn, I was a closed book to young staffers and an unknown to recent political appointees. The gag orders had worked, at least in the short term.
In the final stage of my career, the only ones paying any attention to me were lower-level branch chiefs who, collectively, were like the sadistic prison warden from Shawshank Redemption. To clarify, they probably weren’t as sadistic as the warden, but they were every bit as arrogant. They knew nothing about the 800-Pound Gorilla, but they knew about the long-running gag order, and they enforced it ruthlessly. And like the Shawshank prisoner, I worked hard, acted civilly, and produced results while I strategized about options.
Toward the end of President Obama’s second term in the White House, I was “set free” for a six-month detail with a different agency, where I was put in charge of a broad initiative and had, once again, the ability to network and collaborate. My new colleagues and I quickly developed a camaraderie I hadn’t experienced in decades. Most importantly, leadership in the host agency treated me fairly and with respect. I looked forward to each new day in the office, and I invoked creative powers that hadn’t been tapped in years. My performance was rated “outstanding.”
The ironies were mounting and the possibility of a rejuvenated federal career was almost palpable. But alas, it was too late, especially when my home agency pulled me back into their headquarters in the early months of the Trump Administration. By then I wasn’t interested in starting over with FWS. Too much damage had been done. The baggage was too heavy, the hurdles too high, and I’d long lost respect for agency “leadership.” Some of the lower chiefs had finally figured out I wasn’t the enemy after all, but the higher chiefs and political appointees had shown their stripes one too many times.
Frankly, by then I had a new plan. I meted out my energies carefully, performing my twisted day-job while writing an exposé at lunchtimes, nights, and weekends. Sometimes I even wrote my lunch-time entries in the café of Fish and Wildlife headquarters.
The exposé got longer and longer until finally it looked like a book, warranting a preface.
They wanted me out, and now I’m out. As for the 800-Pound Gorilla? Well, let’s put it this way: Gag-Ordered No More!
 For example, obscenity, child pornography, and “true threats” are not protected speech.
 The last chief I worked for prohibited me from talking with anyone about anything without first seeking his permission. No talking in the halls, no phone calls, no dropping by the office of a colleague to say hello. This was not a written order—it was impossible for the chief to enforce and wouldn’t withstand legal scrutiny—but it was communicated in no uncertain terms. It was finally rescinded after about six months, when I threatened to file a harassment claim.
Brian Czech is CASSE’s Executive Director.