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Yes, Florida is allowed to ban the term “climate change” from its workers’ mouths

March 9, 2015, 6:30 PM UTC
State of the State
Florida Gov. Rick Scott addresses a joint session of the Florida Legislature, Tuesday, March 3, 2015 during his State of the State address in the Florida House of Representatives. (AP Photo/Tampa Bay Times, Scott Keeler) TAMPA OUT; CITRUS COUNTY OUT; PORT CHARLOTTE OUT; BROOKSVILLE HERNANDO TODAY OUT
Photograph by Scott Keeler — AP

Florida—a state often typecast as a land of oddities and outlandish narratives—spawned its latest believe-it-or-not story on Sunday when the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting published a report that employees at the state Department of Environmental Protection had been told to not use the terms “climate change,” “global warming,” and “sustainability.”

DEP officials have been ordered not to use the term “climate change” or “global warming” in any official communications, emails, or reports, according to former DEP employees, consultants, volunteers and records obtained by the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting.

The policy goes beyond semantics and has affected reports, educational efforts and public policy in a department that has about 3,200 employees and $1.4 billion budget.

The prohibition, which went into effect in 2011, is especially noteworthy since Florida is considered the U.S. state most vulnerable to the effects of a warming world. But at the same time, the policy is not entirely surprising. Florida Governor Rick Scott, who was elected to a second term in November, has said on many occasions that he is not convinced that climate change is due to human actions, despite scientific evidence that says otherwise.

The FCIR reports that four former employees with the department confirmed the ban, saying that it had been verbally communicated statewide. One of them said that staffers were warned that using the terms would garner “unwanted attention to their projects.”

Spokeswomen for the department and the governor’s office told the FCIR that the ban didn’t exist.

It may seem harsh and invasive for an employer to exert such control of their workers’ speech, but it’s also very likely legal. And, in fact, Florida’s alleged move is rather similar to a rule that Boston’s mayor recently instituted that kept city employees from bashing the city’s bid for the 2024 Olympics.

Determining a public employer’s right to limit workers’ free speech is a matter of balancing three factors: whether the speech is related to a worker’s job responsibilities, whether it’s a matter of public concern, and whether there’s justification for the government to treat employees differently from any other member of the public, says Curtis Summers, a labor and employment lawyer from the Husch Blackwell firm. If a Florida Department of Environmental Protection employee challenged the reported ban in court, there’s a good chance the judgement would go in the government’s favor, Summer says.

The same outcome is likely for private employers, says Bruce Barry, a management professor at Vanderbilt University and author of Speechless: the Erosion of Free Expression in the American Workplace. “In private employment, your rights aren’t zero, but they’re very limited.”

Rick Scott’s administration, Summers says, is “implementing the agency the way they want to implement it. It’s akin to … when a new party wins office, members of the other vacate their positions, he says, “You have to have people who effectuate the agenda,” he says. Even if that agenda is—arguably—based on junk science, or no science at all.

This is all a reminder, Summers says, that in their professional capacity, “public employees are one class of citizens who don’t get full benefit of the First Amendment.”