Forest Service 

PEER files suit over "gag order"

The nonprofit Public Employees for Enviro-nmental Responsibility (PEER) filed a lawsuit last week alleging the U.S. Forest Service is violating the Freedom of Information Act by withholding public information.

U.S. Forest Service (USFS) Chief Thomas L. Tidwell issued a memo Aug. 25, 2009, forbidding all staff from responding to media inquiries about national issues without agency headquarters' approval. PEER asserts the memo, which the nonprofit calls a "gag order," also put into effect additional red tape local employees must cut through before they are allowed to answer media inquiries. Specifically, PEER says staffers contacted by a reporter must first file a 20-part "Forest Service Media Coordination Request" and wait for official approval before responding to any questions.

The steps prevent the timely release of vital crime, fire and accident reports, according to PEER, while also tacking on weeks of waiting to routine media inquiries. Perhaps most importantly, says PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, taxpayers are being kept out of the loop.

"That means the public can't talk to the people who work for them, and vice versa," Ruch says.

USFS Media Relations Manager Joe Walsh says PEER's allegations are bunk. Tidwell's memo simply restated a longstanding policy.

"It's been around forever," Walsh says. "I think part of this issue may be that folks don't always follow it."

Walsh also asserts his office doesn't meddle when it comes to emergency situations.

"We do not stand in the way of pubic information that affects life and safety," he says.

He adds: "This was not a gag order."

PEER maintains the policy is wrong. The nonprofit submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the USFS in February, asking the agency to provide all information surrounding Tidwell's August 2009 directive. In response, the USFS provided 58 pages of documents, including Tidwell's August 2009 memo. PEER believes the agency has not released everything related to the issue. That's why it filed suit Sept. 9 in Washington, D.C. District Court.

The government has 60 days from the filing to respond to the lawsuit.

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