Courage and Conviction

Robert Nelson and Susan Paradise.

Robert M. Nelson and 27 fellow Caltech scientists, engineers and administrators working at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory are risking their jobs and their personal financial well-being to fight for their right of privacy against unwarranted government intrusion. They are fighting for all of us, and they deserve our respect and support. On Tuesday, October 5, this battle moved to the United States Supreme Court.

In 2007, NASA decided after fifty years that Nelson and all Caltech employees working at JPL were to be subjected to new background checks to determine their suitability for employment. Refusal to cooperate would mean termination. Unlike the usual criminal background and employment reference checks which Caltech employees undergo, a much broader net would be cast where landlords, neighbors, schools and any others could be asked open-ended questions to provide any information that could be perceived as reflecting on a person’s suitability for government employment. Of course, Caltech employees are not government employees, but that seems beside the point. Given the collected data, NASA’s determination of whether these people are suitable for continued employment at JPL would include consideration of whether they have engaged in evils such as homosexuality, cohabitation, adultery, illegitimate children and mental, emotional, psychological, or psychiatric issues, among others. Anyone deemed unsuitable by NASA would not receive a statement of reasons for that determination, nor would they have a right to an adversarial hearing. Perhaps a military tribunal could be established…

For all the rage against “big government” these days, there seems to be little care about the continuing erosion of our personal liberties by the government, especially our right to privacy. The excuse is security. The excuse is September 11. Should government be limited in what it can know about any one of us? Should it be free to collect information about our personal habits and beliefs? Sift through our email and dive into our home computers without a warrant? Monitor our phone conversations and texting? What about creating a database on those who possess firearms? That might get the attention of SOME people! September 11 is used by government to argue for greater and greater intrusion into our lives for the sake of security. September 11 is invoked by the government in its pleadings in this case.

We talk about fighting wars for our freedoms as Americans. Our young people (and some not so young!) in the military and National Guard are putting their lives on the line every day in two such wars. Are those of us at home willing to risk anything for our freedoms? For our liberties? For what distinguishes this country from totalitarian dictatorships? We do, though most people rarely think about it. We have decided to have a criminal justice system where the standard for conviction is so high (“beyond a reasonable doubt”) that we are willing to risk the release of a criminal into society to minimize the chance of wrongfully imprisoning an innocent person. Further, when they defend their clients, lawyers have an affirmative duty to make the government provide due process and prove its case, even if they suspect or know their clients are guilty. We should take pride in that. But if we are going to truly be a free people in this country and stay free, we need to be willing to assume the risk of our liberties and of our rights.

Nelson and his colleagues have assumed that risk and more.

They have battled in Federal District Court and up to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to obtain an injuction against these open-ended background checks by NASA. The Supreme Court will decide whether that decision by the Ninth Circuit will be upheld or reversed.

If upheld, NASA will have to create a new background check that is closely and demonstrably tailored to its actual and specific needs, or decide that the prior background checks conducted by Caltech were adequate under the circumstances. If the injunction is thrown out, there are more issues that were not considered ripe by the lower courts until damage occurred.

We cannot take our rights for granted. We should take pride that members of our profession are willing to fight for those rights:

ROBERT M. NELSON
WILLIAM BRUCE BRANERDT
JULIA BELL
JOSETTE BELLAN
DENNIS V. BYRNES
GEORGE CARLISLE
KENT ROBERT CROSSIN
LARRY R. D’ADDARIO
RILEY M. DUREN
PETER R. EISENHARDT
SUSAN D.J. FOSTER
MATTHEW P. GOLOMBEK
VAROUJAN GORJIAN
ZAREH GORJIAN
ROBERT J. HAW
JAMES KULLECK
SHARLON L. LAUBACH
CHRISTIAN A. LINDENSMITH
AMANDA MAINZER
SCOTT MAXWELL
TIMOTHY P. MCELRATH
SUSAN PARADISE
KONSTANTIN PENANEN
CELESTE M. SATTER
PETER M. B. SHAMES
AMY SNYDER HALE
WILLIAM JOHN WALKER
PAUL R. WEISSMAN

Mark SykesFor more information and updates on this case, and to contribute to their legal fund, go to http://hspd12jpl.org.

October 3, 2010

Mark V. Sykes, Ph.D., J.D.
CEO and Director,
Planetary Science Institute

Republished with permission

The transcripts for all hearings are available here.   NASA v Nelson is here.

Published by the LA Progressive on October 11, 2010
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...