Barton Bibler, a long time employee of Florida’s environmental protection department, was forced by his boss to take a leave of absence after mentioning ‘climate change’ in a public hearing. He was told not to come back at the office until he had sought mental health examination. This was in response to a violation of an unwritten policy that came into effect after Governor Rick Scott came to office, a notorious climate change denier and controversial figure, which bans employees from using ‘climate change’, ‘global warming’, ‘rising sea level’ and such from public communication. If you find this hilarious, you can stop laughing now. This not the Onion. This is Scott’s Florida – the land of ignorance and denial, or so he would like us to believe.

Employee harassment

Rick Scott, arguably the worst US governor in history. Photo: Chris O'Meara/AP

Rick Scott, arguably the worst US governor in history. Photo: Chris O’Meara/AP

Only a while ago, ZME Science reported an outrageous paper released by the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting, which stated employees  of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection were constrained from using keywords like climate change or global warming in public. I was shocked of the news. Officials denied such a rule exists, and for a moment I gave the whole thing the reason of a doubt. Now, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), Bibler came under hot water after mentioning  climate change at an official meeting and keeping notes of that discussion in official minutes. The press release:

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In response, his superiors at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) issued him a letter of reprimand, ordered him to take two days leave and then told him not to return until he had medical clearance of his fitness for duty.”

Barton Bibler is a long-time DEP employee who now serves as Land Management Plan Coordinator in its Division of State Lands. He attended a Florida Coastal Managers Forum on February 27, 2015 at which climate change and sea-level rise were discussed among a mix of public attendees. Mr. Bibler’s official notes on this meeting reflected all of that discussion. He was directed to remove any hot button issues, especially explicit references to climate change, and then was given a letter of reprimand for supposedly misrepresenting that the “official meeting agenda included climate change.”

As he was given the reprimand on March 9th, Mr. Bibler was told to not return to work for two days which would be charged against his personal leave time. Two days later he received a “Medical Release Form” requiring that his doctor supply the DEP with an evaluation of unspecified “medical condition and behavior” issues before being allowed to return to work.

If there’s anyone who needs mental health inspection, that’s Governor Rick Scott, along with all his pals who think it’s alright to ignore a highly likely public hazard; not to mention downright censorship of employees tasked with protecting the public’s health. Imagine the nerve. Bibler said he wasn’t aware of the gag order, since he didn’t get the memo. Or chose to ignore it, smart fellow.

“Bart Bibler has fallen through a professional looking glass in a Florida where the words ‘climate change’ may not be uttered, or even worse, written down,” stated Florida PEER Director Jerry Phillips, a former DEP attorney, pointing out that Bart Bibler has no idea whether he will ever be allowed to return to work. “If anyone needs mental health screening it is Governor Rick Scott and other officials telling state workers to pretend that climate change and sea-level rise do not exist.”

PEER has since requested an investigation be opened by the DEP Office of Inspector General. Ironically, Florida is one of the most vulnerable states in the face of climate change. Some 80% of its residents live in coastal areas.

“Not just the employees but the citizens of Florida should demand a full investigation into what the heck is going on inside DEP and whether we can expect more cases like this,” added Phillips, noting that in addition to the climate change gag, Scott has also eviscerated anti-pollution enforcement and rigorous permitting. “Under Governor Scott, the Department of Environmental Protection functions like a gulag where those in servitude who show any spark of honesty are simply made to disappear.”

…and it’s perfectly legal, too

I don’t know which is worse, Scott or the fact that this whole gag rule is perfectly legal. In fact, it falls in line with another stunt 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 employees chose to attack the ban in court, a judge would most likely rule in the governor’s favor. Repercussions at work, like “unwanted attention to their projects” as the verbal inside memo is thought to have contained, would soon follow as consequence. According to Summers, who spoke to Forbes about whether or not Scott is legally entitled to pull of all this, “public employees are one class of citizens who don’t get full benefit of the First Amendment.”