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:


Mark SykesFor more information and updates on this case, and to contribute to their legal fund, go to

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.


  1. marshall says

    If you are working for the government, it has the right to require a background check. This does not take away any of your rights, you do not have the right to work for the government in any manner, civilian or military. Having done the background checks, I can tell you that some really silly people pass them without issues. If all this does not suit you, look for a new job.

    • says

      These people are NOT working for the government! They are working for Caltech, from whom the government buys a service, namely the management and operation of JPL. Consider how extending the “right” you claim for the government, from the roughly 1.8 million civilian Civil Service employees to the employees of the companies that buy services from the government, affects the reach of government intrusion into the lives of citizens. Is this what we want our society be like?

      Few would question the need for the government to inquire into the security of persons doing bona fide classified or military work. The scientists at the Los Alamos and Livermore labs who design nuclear weapons have always been contractor employees. The issue is the blanket extension of an intrusive requirement to people doing entirely civilian scientific and technical work, including many who have worked and developed careers at JPL over decades, and now face arbitrary termination. There is also the potential for such broad snooping to be misused, by future Richard Nixon types, to manipulate and abuse American citizens for political or criminal purposes. It is sad, but such things have happened in the past, and realistically will happen again if the barriers protecting us are removed.

  2. Antonie Churg says

    To a person who values all the rights in the Bill of Rights, it seems like a no-brainer to support the scientists’ case against Kafkaesque procedures that would permanently bar people from their life work. The reader who says that gun-ownership trumps privacy and free speech should be reminded of the poem about the Nazis attributed to Rev. Martin Neimoller:

    “They came first for the Communists,
    and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist.

    Then they came for the trade unionists,
    and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

    Then they came for the Jews,
    and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew.

    Then they came for me
    and by that time no one was left to speak up.”

  3. says

    JPL is the only NASA center that is not Civil Service, being run though a sub-contractor relationship with Caltech. JPL’s primary charter was originally the unmanned exploration of the Solar System: pure science. In the past decades Earth observation, especially as a branch of planetary science, has also become very important. Some individual technologies are related to defense work, and some of these are classified, but the focus is on non-military matters. NASA was, after all, founded as a civilian space agency, to keep military and scientific aspects of space exploration separate. (I believe the Defense Department’s military space activities have always been larger than NASA’s.)

    I think the real issue here is whether we want our whole society to get swept up and consumed by a national hysteria over security; in which JPL is a bit player. Do we really want our core values as a free and open society to be swamped by our yearning for an unachievable absolute security? Probably 150 times as many people have been killed in car accidents since 2001 as were killed in 9/11. Why do we fear terrorists so much more than driving to work? To protect ourselves from a minuscule personal risk from external enemies, are we really serious about giving up the precious heart of liberal democracy, which is what makes America so worth preserving? After all, personally we are all doomed. But the central American dream is much bigger, and should be eternal. Many, many thousands have died to protect that dream since our foundation. Will we, out of base fear, now betray what they gave up their live to protect?

    I support the administration on most issues, and understand that Obama must necessarily feel an intense need to protect his political back from the powerful military and security establishment, but I think think all progressives should push back hard on this principle, both in conversations with the politicians and with the wider public. And I applaud the courage of people at JPL who are fighting this deeply un-American (but typically George Bush) executive order.

    (Disclosure: I have worked as an astronomer and space scientist at JPL and Caltech for over 30 years, just retiring lately. I have been a friend of Susan Foster, one of the parties to this lawsuit, since 1980.)

  4. Ryder says

    While employment and privacy issues are important, many of us have vastly larger fish to fry. A baby was stripped from the arms of a new mother and father. Among the reasons used by the courts to approve this is the fact that the father was exercising his first and second amendment rights, namely his ownership of guns, his membership in a militia, and his free association therein.

    Anyone reading this article, including those who are facing potential loss of jobs at JPL, should redirect their efforts to the more pressing issue of newborns being taken from parents by the state, for engaging in Constitutionally guaranteed rights.

    Losing children must be regarded as a vastly higher priority than intrusive job interviews.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *