What Scientists Can Do

How Scientists Can Protect Themselves

While the risk of legal attack on any individual scientist is small, there are actions scientists can take to help reduce the risk of an attack, especially from invasive Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.

Professional Correspondence and Record Keeping
  • Conduct professional correspondence in a professional manner. It is important to remember that scientists’ emails may be FOIAed, otherwise disclosed due to legal actions or even, sadly, hacked.
  • Do not use professional email accounts for personal emails and vice versa because of the risk of FOIA requests and similar inquiries. FOIA only applies to government records, so separating personal and professional emails reduces the likelihood that personal correspondence will be affected by a FOIA request or other investigation.
  • Scientists should ensure they are complying with document and data retention requirements. The applicable legal requirements depend on the scientist’s employer; the scientist’s funding sources; and whether litigation is likely
  • Employees and consultants of public institutions, including government scientists and public university researchers, should retain all public records. The precise determination will vary by state, but generally, documents relating to public business.
  • Similarly, public funding may require certain recordkeeping. For example, National Science Foundation grants stipulate that research data, including databases, must be shared.
  • Finally, documents must be retained if litigation is “reasonably anticipated,” meaning there is credible information that a lawsuit may be brought at some point (more on this below). Even if there are no strict retention requirements, it is advisable to keep documents for at least a few years; anyone can be made to look bad when files are missing.
If You Find Yourself Under Legal Attack
  • First, remember that other researchers have been through this before and come out the other side.
  • Scientists under legal attack, or who believe an attack is likely, should promptly contact their institutional counsel or groups such as us, or both. In addition to providing legal resources, we also provide emotional support by connecting scientists under attack to others who have successfully navigated such situations. We can also assist in situations where the scientist’s legal interests differ from the institution’s own legal interests.
  • Once litigation is reasonably anticipated, there is a legal requirement to make a good-faith effort to preserve all documents relevant to the dispute, which can include even Facebook or Twitter messages, or documents stored on a personal computer. Generally, an organization’s attorney will issue a “document hold notice” when necessary, which provides details on what and how to preserve.
  • If scientists must produce documents because of FOIA requests or other legal obligations, they should work with their counsel to ensure that only necessary information is released. Personal information is very likely protected and, depending on the applicable state and federal laws, it should be possible to also protect aspects of scientists’ academic work and other intellectual property.

Note: The above discusses only U.S. laws and does not constitute legal advice.

Please contact us if you are a scientist and need legal advice.

Essential Reading

Climate scientists have been under attack for years. And as the scientific evidence for climate change has gotten stronger, the attacks have only gotten more aggressive.

In the new “post-truth” political environment, scientists must – sadly – be prepared for politically-motivated attacks. The Climate Science Legal Defense Fund has produced this pocket guide to educate scientists on the legal risks they may face, and to help scientists prepare and protect themselves.

This guide concerns only U.S. laws, and should not be taken as individual legal advice. If you are facing any of the situations described in this guide, or one not covered here, email lawyer@csldf.org or contact us via web form to receive a free consultation with an attorney who can discuss the specific laws and options that pertain to your case.

Pocket Guide

Get the Guide

You may be inspired to send an open letter or create a public petition because of efforts to marginalize or suppress science. While the possibility of these activities resulting in legal action against you is small, there are things you can do to avoid putting yourself at risk when you advocate for science.

Get the guide.

This information contained in this guide concerns U.S. laws only and does not constitute specific legal advice. If you have legal questions regarding a particular circumstance, please call your lawyer or contact us directly by emailing info@csldf.org or using our web form.

This guide is intended to help researchers safely engage in advocacy and protests, and understand whether their activities are constitutionally protected.

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects “the freedom of speech,” as well as “the right of the people peaceably to assemble,” also known as the right to demonstrate. Different limitations to your rights may apply depending on whether you work for the government or a private institution.

Authored by CSLDF attorneys, with assistance from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the pamphlet is available as a free download to print and share.

Get the brochure.

This brochure concerns U.S. laws only and does not constitute specific legal advice. If you have legal questions regarding a particular circumstance, please call your lawyer or contact us directly by emailing info@csldf.org or using our web form.

Thanks to the ACLU for guidance in creating this pamphlet and for allowing us to adopt parts of their published materials.

Hear directly from climate scientists about what it’s like to be threatened with legal attacks or harassed by politically and ideologically motivated groups.

Read Scientists’ Stories

The Climate Science Legal Defense Fund pamphlet, “March for Science: Know Your Rights,” was produced to help you understand whether your activities surrounding the April 22, 2017 March for Science — or any other demonstration — are constitutionally protected.

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects “the freedom of speech,” as well as “the right of the people peaceably to assemble,” also known as the right to demonstrate. Different limitations to your rights may apply depending on whether you work for the government or a private institution. If you are a federally funded scientist or a government employee, these constitutional rights may be limited in certain ways and open records laws may apply to you.

Authored by CSLDF attorneys, with assistance from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the pamphlet is available as a free download to print and share.

March for Science

This pamphlet concerns U.S. laws only and does not constitute specific legal advice. If you have legal questions regarding a particular circumstance, please call your lawyer or contact us directly by emailing info@csldf.org or using our web form.

Thank you to the ACLU for guidance in creating this pamphlet, and for allowing us to adopt parts of their publications.

Download Pamphlet

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