(Dr. King and Coretta Scott King. Wikimedia Commons)
2017 was a year of increased conflict in the United States. Many diverse communities were forced to confront a range of challenges related to anti-Semitism, racism, homophobia and anti-immigrant feelings. These challenges strike at the heart of what it means to live in a multicultural, democratic society.
Yet, it is not the first time America has faced such a crisis – this divisiveness has a much longer history. I study the civil rights movement and the field of peace geographies. We faced similar crises related to the broader civil rights struggles in the 1960s.
So, what can we draw from the past that is relevant to the present? Specifically, how can we heal a nation that is divided along race, class and political lines?
As outlined by Martin Luther King Jr., the role of love, in engaging individuals and communities in conflict, is crucial today. For King, love was not sentimental. It demanded that individuals tell their oppressors what they were doing was wrong.
King spent his public career working toward ending segregation and fighting racial discrimination. For many people the pinnacle of this work occurred in Washington, D.C., when he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
Less well-known and often ignored is his later work on ending poverty and his fight on behalf of poor people. In fact, when King was assassinated in Memphis he was in the midst of building toward a national march on Washington, D.C., that would have brought together tens of thousands of economically disenfranchised people to advocate for policies that would reduce poverty. This effort – known as the “Poor People’s Campaign” – aimed to dramatically shift national priorities to the health and welfare of working peoples.
Scholars such as Derek Alderman, Paul Kingsbury and Owen Dwyer have emphasized how King’s work can be applied in today’s context. They argue that calling attention to the civil rights movement, can “change the way students understand themselves in relation to the larger project of civil rights.” And in understanding the civil rights movement, students and the broader public can see its contemporary significance.
Idea of love
King focused on the role of love as key to building healthy communities and the ways in which love can and should be at the center of our social interactions.
King’s final book, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?,” published in the year before his assassination, provides us with his most expansive vision of an inclusive, diverse and economically equitable U.S. nation. For King, love is a key part of creating communities that work for everyone and not just the few at the expense of the many.
Love was not a mushy or easily dismissed emotion, but was central to the kind of community he envisioned. King made distinctions between three forms of love which are key to the human experience: “eros,” “philia” and most importantly “agape.”
For King, eros is a form of love that is most closely associated with desire, while philia is often the love that is experienced between very good friends or family. These visions are different from agape.
Agape, which was at the center of the movement he was building, was the moral imperative to engage with one’s oppressor in a way that showed the oppressor the ways their actions dehumanize and detract from society. He said,
“In speaking of love we are not referring to some sentimental emotion. It would be nonsense to urge men to love their oppressors in an affectionate sense[…] When we speak of loving those who oppose us […] we speak of a love which is expressed in the Greek word Agape. Agape means nothing sentimental or basically affectionate; it means understanding, redeeming goodwill for all [sic] men, an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return.”
King further defined agape when he argued at the University of California at Berkeley that the concept of agape “stands at the center of the movement we are to carry on in the Southland.” It was a love that demanded that one stand up for oneself and tells those who oppress that what they were doing was wrong.
Why this matters now
In the face of violence directed at minority communities and in a deepening political divisions in the country, King’s words and philosophy are perhaps more critical for us today than at any point in the recent past.
As King noted, all persons exist in an interrelated community and all are dependent on each other. By connecting love to community, King argued there were opportunities to build a more just and economically sustainable society which respected difference. As he said,
“Agape is a willingness to go to any length to restore community… Therefore if I respond to hate with a reciprocal hate I do nothing but intensify the cleavages of a broken community.”
King outlined a vision in which we are compelled to work toward making our communities inclusive. They reflect the broad values of equality and democracy. Through an engagement with one another as its foundation, agape provides opportunities to work toward common goals.
Building a community today
At a time when the nation feels so divided, there is a need to bring back King’s vision of agape-fueled community building and begin a difficult conversation about where we are as a nation and where we want to go. It would move us past simply seeing the other side as being wholly motivated by hate.
Engaging in a conversation through agape signals a willingness to restore broken communities and to approach difference with an open mind.
This is an updated version of an article originally published on Nov. 16, 2016.
(Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. , chats with African-Americans during a door-to-door campaign in 1964.
After this last tumultuous year of political rancor and racial animus, many people could well be asking what can sustain them over the next coming days: How do they make the space for self-care alongside a constant call to activism? Or, how do they turn off their phones, when there are more calls to be made and focus instead on inward cultivation?
As a historian of American race and religion, I have studied how figures in American history have struggled with similar questions. For some, such as the philosopher and naturalist Henry David Thoreau, the answer was to retreat to Walden Pond. But for the African-Americans who grew up with the legacy of segregation, disfranchisement, lynching, and violence, such a retreat was unthinkable. Among them was Martin Luther King Jr.
On this anniversary of King’s birthday, it’s worth looking at how King learned to integrate spiritual growth and social transformation. One major influence on King’s thought was the African-American minister, theologian, and mystic Howard Thurman.
The influence of Howard Thurman
Born in 1899, Thurman was 30 years older than King, the same age, in fact, as King’s father. Through his sermons and teaching at Howard University and Boston University, he influenced intellectually and spiritually an entire generation that became the leadership of the civil rights movement.
Among his most significant contributions was bringing the ideas of nonviolence to the movement. It was Thurman’s trip to India in 1935, where he met Mahatma Gandhi, that was greatly influential in incorporating the principles of nonviolence in the African-American freedom struggle.
At the close of the meeting, which was long highlighted by Thurman as a central event of his life, Gandhi reportedly told Thurman that “it may be through the Negroes that the unadulterated message of nonviolence will be delivered to the world.” King and others remembered and repeated that phrase during the early years of the civil rights movement in the 1950s.
Thurman and King were both steeped in the black Baptist tradition. Both thought long about how to apply their church experiences and theological training into challenging the white supremacist ideology of segregation. However, initially their encounters were brief.
Thurman had served as dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University from 1953-1965. King was a student there when Thurman first assumed his position in Boston and heard the renowned minister deliver some addresses. A few years later, King invited Thurman to speak at his first pulpit at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery.
Ironically, their most serious personal encounter, that gave Thurman his opportunity to influence King personally, and help prepare him for struggles to come, came as a result of a tragedy.
A crucial meeting in hospital
On Sept. 20, 1958, a mentally disturbed African-American woman named Izola Ware Curry came to a book signing in upper Manhattan. There, King was signing copies of his new book, “Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story.” Curry moved to the front of the signing line, took out a sharp-edged letter opener and stabbed the 29-year-old minister, who had just vaulted to national prominence through his leadership of the Montgomery bus boycott.
King barely survived. Doctors later told King that, if he had sneezed, he easily could have died. Of course, King later received a fatal gunshot wound in April 1968. Curry lived her days in a mental institution, to the age of 97.
It was while recuperating in the hospital afterward, that King received a visit from Thurman. While there, Thurman gave the same advice he gave to countless others over decades: that King should take the unexpected, if tragic, opportunity, to step out of life briefly, meditate on his life and its purposes, and only then move forward.
Thurman urged King to extend his rest period by two weeks. It would, as he said, give King “time away from the immediate pressure of the movement” and to “rest his body and mind with healing detachment.” Thurman worried that “the movement had become more than an organization; it had become an organism with a life of its own,” which potentially could swallow up King.
King wrote to Thurman to say, “I am following your advice on the question.”
King’s spiritual connection with Thurman
King and Thurman were never personally close. But Thurman left a profound intellectual and spiritual influence on King. King, for example, reportedly carried his own well-thumbed copy of Thurman’s best-known book, “Jesus and the Disinherited,”in his pocket during the long and epic struggle of the Montgomery bus boycott.
In his sermons during the 1950s and 1960s, King quoted and paraphrased Thurman extensively. Drawing from Thurman’s views, King understood Jesus as friend and ally of the dispossessed – to a group of Jewish followers in ancient Palestine, and to African-Americans under slavery and segregation. That was precisely why Jesus was so central to African-American religious history.
Thurman was not an activist, as King was, nor one to take up specific social and political causes to transform a country. He was a private man and an intellectual. He saw spiritual cultivation as a necessary accompaniment to social activism.
As Walter Fluker, editor of the Howard Thurman Papers Project, has explained, the private mystic and the public activist found common ground in understanding that spirituality is necessarily linked to social transformation. Private spiritual cultivation could prepare the way for deeper public commitments for social change. King himself, according to one biographer, came to feel that the stabbing and enforced convalescence was “part of God’s plan to prepare him for some larger work” in the struggle against southern segregation and American white supremacy.
In a larger sense, the discipline of nonviolence required a spiritual commitment and discipline that came, for many, through self-examination, meditation and prayer. This was the message Thurman transmitted to the larger civil rights movement. Thurman combined, in the words of historian Martin Marty, the “inner life, the life of passion, the life of fire, with the external life, the life of politics.”
Spiritual retreat and activism
King’s stabbing was a bizarre and tragic event, but in some sense it gave him the period of reflection and inner cultivation needed for the chaotic coming days of the civil rights struggle. The prison cell in Birmingham, Alabama, where in mid-1963 King penned his classic “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” also accidentally but critically provided much the same spiritual retreat for reflections that helped transform America.
The relationship of Thurman’s mysticism and King’s activism provides a fascinating model for how spiritual and social transformation can work together in a person’s life. And in society more generally.
The wedding cake on display at Masterpiece Cakeshop.
AP Photo/Brennan Linsley
On Tuesday, Dec. 5, a visibly divided U.S. Supreme Court tackled the contentious issue of religious freedom when it heard oral arguments in “Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission.” The arguments appeared to evenly split the four conservative justices from the four liberals. Justice Anthony Kennedy, who is often a swing vote, seemed to side with the baker.
The case involves a Denver bakery owner who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple, citing his religious belief that marriage can be between only a man and woman. The couple sued, and a lower court ruled the baker violated Colorado’s public accommodations law. The statute forbids discrimination by businesses serving the public, including on the basis of sexual orientation.
In their appeal to the Supreme Court, the bakery’s lawyers have emphasized free speech issues by presenting the baker as an artist who has a right to choose how he expresses himself. But religious freedom remains central to the case. A key question is whether a business owner must provide services that conflict with his or her religious beliefs.
This divisive case highlights the vast difference between the reality and the rhetoric of religious freedom, which is often considered to be the ideal that promotes harmony and equality. But, history suggests that it does lead to more conflict.
The rhetoric: Equality and goodwill
It is true that throughout U.S. history, Americans have idealized religious freedom and imagined that it brings harmony.
The First Amendment’s clauses guaranteeing religious free exercise and preventing establishment of an official church seemed to promise less discord to the Founding Fathers. In an 1802 letter, Thomas Jefferson, for example, wrote that “religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God.” As the nation’s third president, he argued that a “wall of separation between Church & State” would give all people equally the right to free conscience.
Later presidents echoed the view that religious freedom brings equality and unity by preventing government from favoring particular faiths.
Before his election in 1960, John F. Kennedy tried to ease fears about his Catholicism by affirming religious liberty. Kennedy believed this freedom kept one group from oppressing another. It formed the basis of a society, he declared, where people would “refrain from those attitudes of disdain and division which have so often marred their works in the past, and promote instead the American ideal of brotherhood.”
In the early 1990s, George H.W. Bush identified religious liberty as the basis for other rights. He credited it as a major reason for the vibrancy of American society.
The reality: Conflict and debate
Minority communities, ranging from Catholics to Mormons, have fought to have their traditions and customs recognized as religious. As I show in my work on pluralism, Americans have debated what constitutes a religious expression rather than a cultural practice. People have also argued whether religious expression can extend into political, social and business interactions.
These debates have required the intervention of the courts and have often ended at the Supreme Court. Thus, a right intended to free Americans from government has instead necessitated frequent involvement of a major government institution.
Further complicating matters, the Supreme Court has changed its position over time. Its evolving interpretations show how religious freedom debates create shifting categories of winners and losers.
To the courts
Like Masterpiece Cakeshop, one of the Supreme Court’s first religious liberty cases involved marriage. In 1878, a Mormon resident of the Utah territory sued the federal government after he was charged with bigamy. He argued that the law violated his religious liberty by criminalizing his polygamous marriage. The Supreme Court disagreed. In Reynolds v. United States, the court ruled that the First Amendment guaranteed only freedom of belief, not freedom of practice.
In the 20th century, the Supreme Court showed greater sympathy to religious liberty claims. In several cases – including one brought by Jehovah’s Witnesses challenging a statute requiring a permit for public evangelizing and another by an Amish community that objected to Wisconsin’s compulsory public school law – justices sided with those who claimed their freedom was violated.
That changed in 1990. The court ruled against two men who lost their jobs after using peyote, the cactus, which has hallucinogenic properties and has long been used in Native American religious practices. Because they were fired for drug use, the men were denied unemployment benefits. They claimed that as members of a Native American church, they used the drug for religious purposes.
Moving away from earlier decisions, justices ruled that religious belief was not a ground for refusing to obey laws “prohibiting conduct that the State is free to regulate.”
New century, new conflicts
The peyote case set the stage for Masterpiece Cakeshop. It was in response to the case that Congress passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) of 1993. It required that laws restricting religious expression must show that they serve a compelling need.
RFRA was central in the Supreme Court’s 2014 decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby. That contentious split ruling allowed small, closely held companies the right to deny contraceptive benefits mandated by the Affordable Care Act on the grounds of protecting their owners’ religious liberty.
Similarly, in October 2017, the Trump administration invoked freedom of religion when it allowed all employers a religious exemption to the contraception coverage requirement in the Affordable Care Act.
Critics saw that policy change as an attack on women’s rights. Reaction to it on both sides again showed that government involvement in debates about religious freedom invariably produces winners and losers.
Given our polarized society and the division among the Supreme Court justices today, this pattern will continue, whatever the verdict is.
This is an updated version of an article first published on Nov. 28, 2017.
AP Photo/Julie Jacobson, File
If successful, it would mean lawsuits can brought on behalf of the river for any harm done to it, as if it were a person.
In the past, several environmental groups in India, Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia and New Zealand have successfully sought protection for rivers and landscapes based on this argument. As a Native American scholar of environment and religion, I seek to understand the relationship between people and the natural world.
Native Americans view nature through their belief systems. A river or water does not only sustain life – it is sacred.
Why is water sacred to Native Americans?
In the past year, the Lakota phrase “Mní wičhóni,” or “Water is life,” became a new national protest anthem.
It was chanted by 5,000 marchers at the Native Nations March in Washington, D.C. this spring, and during protests last year as the anthem of the struggle to stop the building of the Dakota Access Pipeline under the Missouri River in North Dakota.
There was a reason: For long years, the Lakota, the Blackfeet and the other Native American tribes understood how to live with nature. And it was based on the knowledge of how to live within the restrictions of the limited water supply of the “Great American desert” of North America.
Water as sacred place
Native Americans learned both through observation and experiment, arguably a process quite similar to what we might call science today. They also learned from their religious ideas, passed on from generation to generation in the form of stories.
I learned from my grandparents, both members of the Blackfeet tribe in Montana, about the sacredness of water. They shared that the Blackfeet believed in three separate realms of existence – the Earth, sky and water. The Blackfeet believed that humans, or “Niitsitapi,” and Earth beings, or “Ksahkomitapi,” lived in one realm; sky beings, or “Spomitapi,” lived in another realm; and underwater beings, or “Soyiitapi,” lived in yet another. The Blackfeet viewed all three worlds as sacred because within them lived the divine.
The water world, in particular, was held in special regard. The Blackfeet believed that in addition to the divine beings, about which they learned from their stories, there were divine animals. The divine beaver, who could talk to humans, taught the Blackfeet their most important religious ceremony. The Blackfeet needed this ceremony to reaffirm their relationships with the three separate realms of reality.
The Soyiitapi, divine water beings, also instructed the Blackfeet to protect their home, the water world. The Blackfeet could not kill or eat anything living in water; they also could not disturb or pollute water.
The Blackfeet viewed water as a distinct place – a sacred place. It was the home of divine beings and divine animals who taught the Blackfeet religious rituals and moral restrictions on human behavior. It can, in fact, be compared to Mount Sinai of the Old Testament, which was viewed as “holy ground” and where God gave Moses the Ten Commandments.
Water as life
Native American tribes on the Great Plains knew something else about the relationship between themselves, the beaver and water. They learned through observation that beavers helped create an ecological oasis within a dry and arid landscape.
As Canadian anthropologist R. Grace Morgan hypothesized in her dissertation “Beaver Ecology/Beaver Mythology,” the Blackfeet sanctified the beaver because they understood the natural science and ecology of beaver behavior.
Morgan believed that the Blackfeet did not harm the beaver because beavers built dams on creeks and rivers. Such dams could produce enough of a diversion to create a pond of fresh clean water that allowed an oasis of plant life to grow and wildlife to flourish.
Beaver ponds provided the Blackfeet with water for daily life. The ponds also attracted animals, which meant the Blackfeet did not have to travel long distances to hunt. The Blackfeet did not need to travel for plants used for medicine or food, either.
Beavers were part of what ecologists call a trophic cascade, or a reciprocal relationship. Beaver ponds were a win-win for all concerned in “the Great American desert” that modern ecologists and conservationists are beginning to study only now.
For the Blackfeet, Lakota and other tribes of the Great Plains, water was “life.” They understood what it meant to live in a dry arid place, which they expressed through their religion and within their ecological knowledge.
Rights of rivers
Indigenous people from around the world share these beliefs about the sacredness of water.
The government of New Zealand recently recognized the ancestral connection of the Maori people to their water. This past spring, the government passed the “Te Awa Tupua Whanganui River Claims Settlement Bill,” which provides “personhood” status to the Whanganui River, one of the largest rivers on the North Island of New Zealand. This river has come to be recognized as having “all the rights, powers, duties, and liabilities of a legal person” – something the Maori believed all along.
The United States does not have such laws. This new lawsuit hopes to change that and give the Colorado River “personhood” status. Indigenous people would add, a river is more than a “person” – it is also a sacred place.
This is an updated version of an article originally published on March 21, 2017.
Race-neutral affirmative action can help identify first-generation students like Blanca Diaz and LaQuintah Garrett.
AP Photo/Amy Anthony
In 2003, Justice Antonin Scalia predicted that the Supreme Court’s sanctioning of race-conscious affirmative action in higher education would spark future litigation for years to come. And right he was. From defeated claims of discrimination against the University of Texas at Austin to an ongoing lawsuit against Harvard, colleges continue to come under attack for considering race as a factor in admissions decisions.
The recent report of the Department of Justice’s possible investigation of “intentional race-based discrimination in college and university admissions” demonstrates that the assaults aren’t likely to end anytime soon.
As a professor of law and scholar dedicated to ensuring equal educational opportunities for students of color, I believe now is an important time to earnestly consider other methods for diversifying student bodies. Race-neutral alternatives could effectively consider such factors as socioeconomic status and educational background, while supplementing more traditional affirmative action.
‘Race-based’ vs. ‘race-conscious’
When thinking about affirmative action, it’s important to first define (and debunk) a few key terms, starting with “race-based” and “race-conscious” affirmative action.
“Race-based affirmative action” is a misnomer often used to describe some college admissions policies. “Race-based” implies that an admissions decision is made solely because of or based upon an applicant’s race or ethnicity, which could not be farther from the truth. A university’s decision to admit, deny or waitlist an applicant is based upon myriad criteria, ranging from standardized test scores to state of residency. Race is just one of many admissions factors a university may consider.
This approach is more appropriately termed “race-conscious.”
Schools that employ race-conscious admissions policies do so in order to achieve the educational, social and democratic benefits of a diverse student body.
As the Supreme Court held in Gratz v. Bollinger, race is not and cannot be the determining factor under a constitutional race-conscious plan. Therefore, when people claim that an African-American or Hispanic student was admitted because of race, they’re often not only inaccurate but also dismissive of the student’s other numerous attributes that played a role in the university’s decision.
Opponents of race-conscious affirmative action often assert that such policies are racist or disproportionately benefit privileged minority students from middle- and upper-class backgrounds.
For its part, the Supreme Court is also skeptical of using racial classifications in governmental decision-making. As a result, it has held that institutions of higher education must afford serious consideration to “workable race-neutral alternatives” before implementing a race-conscious policy.
Importantly, the court’s use of the term “race-neutral” does not mean “race-blind.” That is, universities are permitted to think about how alternative admissions criteria could help them achieve their diversity goals. Race-neutral criteria could include socioeconomic background, high school or undergraduate institution, or class rank. In other words, these are factors that may contribute to a school’s racial diversity, but applicants themselves are not considered based on race.
In some cases, it’s proven difficult for race-neutral admissions policies to achieve the same levels of racial diversity as those achieved through direct consideration of race. However, such measures have been useful in helping to diversify student bodies when used in conjunction with or in lieu of race-conscious affirmative action.
The viability of race-neutral alternatives
When coupled with the stark racial disparities that continue to plague some professions, the uncertain future of race-conscious affirmative action calls for a renewed focus on alternatives that look beyond race alone.
Law schools play a unique role in training our country’s next generation of leaders. It is, in fact, vital to the future of our democracy that we continue to provide students from historically underrepresented racial groups with access to legal education. And yet, the legal profession was recently determined to be “one of the least racially diverse professions in the nation.”
To help law schools improve their diversity, we examined the relationship between race and race-neutral identity factors in law school admissions. The project, which was funded in part by a grant from AccessLex Institute, surveyed over a thousand first-year law students at schools throughout the country and asked about various aspects of their identity, such as socioeconomic status and educational background.
Our findings indicated that African-American and Hispanic students were significantly more likely than both white and Asian/Pacific Islander students to have qualified for free or reduced lunch programs in elementary or secondary school, had a parent or guardian who received public assistance when the student was a dependent minor, and received a Pell Grant during their undergraduate studies – all of which are race-neutral factors that schools could consider in admissions decisions.
How admissions could change
Based on the sample of participants in our study, it’s clear that privilege did not catapult all students of color to law school. Many of them had to overcome the structural inequalities of poverty, race and public education to embark on a legal career. Expanding opportunities for these and other minority students will benefit not only legal education and the legal profession, but also society more broadly.
Race-neutral admissions policies could help identify and create opportunities for these students.
To be clear, I do not advocate for the wholesale substitution of traditional race-conscious admissions measures with the factors we studied. Race-conscious policies continue to be the most effective means by which to create diverse student bodies.
However, we encourage law schools and other institutions of higher education to utilize these and other race-neutral admissions factors as a means of complying with the Supreme Court’s affirmative action mandates and testing the viability of policies that take such factors into account.
Doing so will help ensure that traditionally underrepresented students of color will continue to have access to colleges and universities that serve as gateways to career, financial and life opportunities.
Protesters carry signs during a march for science Saturday, April 22, 2017, in Denver.
AP Photo/David Zalubowski
What can those armed with facts – like scientists, professionals and knowledgeable citizens – do to shape policy?
In April, scientists and their supporters took to the streets. The March for Science was a public defense of science as an invaluable part of society and policy. We, as academic scientists, were among them. When everyone returned to their labs and offices, we saw our fellow marchers search for ways to build on the momentum.
One of the most accessible options to do so is the federal public comment process.
What is public comment?
Public comment subjects federal policies to peer review. Scientists and other professionals can use public comment to ensure that policy is based on the best available evidence, vetting the science behind regulations.
When Congress passes a law, it provides a framework for federal agencies on how to implement it. Figuring out the details of implementation is usually up to the agency by making rules and regulations. Since 1946, the Administrative Procedures Act has required that each new rule be subject to public comment, giving citizens the chance to comment on and change the proposed rule before it becomes legally enforceable. Proposed and final rules are all published in the Federal Register, a publicly accessible online government database.
The act also ensures that agencies cannot ignore these comments by requiring the agency to respond to all “material” comments. This qualifier is critical. For an agency to respond to the comment, it must be unique and fact-based, such that it could “require a change in [the] proposed rule.”
You may have already encountered a public comment if anyone has asked you to submit a prewritten letter regarding a proposed rule. These “form letters” are written by organizations – often nonprofits – and then a copy is signed and submitted by a large number of people. While agencies may note the impressive response a proposed regulation triggers, these form letters are legally considered a single material comment.
Yet form letters often make up a large percentage of comments received. For example, in 2004, the EPA was in the process of making a rule that would reduce emissions of mercury from coal-fired utility units. The majority of comments on this proposed rule submitted through MoveOn.org were duplicates of the same two-sentence form letter or slight variants of a broad claim about the inadequacy of the proposed rule. This meant that the EPA received little real information to which it had to respond.
Form letters are popular because they are easier than writing a unique, fact-based comment. But scientists and other professionals often have the knowledge required to do so. They are trained to read and summarize evidence from a variety of sources. They are also familiar with the general principles of subject fields like ecology, economics or nutrition, which are recurring themes across many regulations.
Federal agencies need the expert information that scientists and professionals can provide. An analysis by the U.S. Forest Service found that the majority of public input was value-based. While these comments provided agency employees with critical information on public opinion, value-based comments were not as helpful to the planning staff as detailed comments that provided technical feedback. Only 9 percent of the comments sampled were classified as having a high level of detail.
Why should scientists engage?
Public comment allows for flexibility. With an online submission portal, it doesn’t require participants to be in a certain place to have input. Its consistency across federal agencies avoids the need to reacquaint oneself with agency-specific processes. Perhaps most importantly, it allows for public participation, opening the process to scientists and professionals across sectors and career stages without a personal contact or advisory position at the agency.
This isn’t to say that there are no barriers. For example, proposed regulations are often filled with jargon and organized in unclear ways. But there are sources designed to coach you through the process, including Regulations.gov. Material specifically oriented toward helping scientists and other professionals is available through the Public Comment Project, a website that we created with other colleagues and maintain. It includes how-to guides and helps you find rules of interest that are open for comment.
Has it made a difference?
Changes to rules as a result of public comment happen often. For example, in a 2016 proposed rule by the Centers for Medicare Medicaid Services, the agencies expanded the definition of “patient” in the final rule. The expansion was in response to comments by the Midwest Health Initiative and the American Hospital Association, among others. This effectively changed the scope of data that could be extracted for providers, suppliers, hospital associations and medical societies.
Or, take a National Marine Fisheries Service proposed rule to designate critical habitat for a marine snail, the black abalone. A comment written by one of us expanded the critical habitat designation so that all life stages of the species would be covered.
A formal analysis on a 1992 Environmental Protection Agency proposed rule on certain cancer-causing pesticides found that the agency was was more likely to bar the use of a particular cancer-causing pesticide when faced with evidence of high risk to human health or the environment. Public comment by environmental advocacy groups increased the probability of cancellation.
Why comment now?
Experts, from scientists to professionals, have an increasingly important role to quality-check the research that makes its way into policy – see, for example, this statement by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, one of the world’s largest scientific societies. Although the devaluation of science in public policy is a long-term issue, it has recently escalated rapidly. A few of the most recent examples include the removal of climate change-related data and research from government websites, proposed reduction in federal budgets for science including the complete removal of certain programs like NOAA’s Sea Grant, and the request of agencies for scientists to censor their language.
Responding to a call for public comment is one way to check the facts that make up public policy. We call all scientists, professionals and knowledgeable members of the public to apply their specific expertise to this process.
Mary Fisher, M.S. Student, Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, University of Washington; Natalie Lowell, Ph.D. Candidate in Fisheries Science, University of Washington; Ryan Kelly, Assistant Professor, Marine and Environmental Affairs, University of Washington, and Samuel May, Graduate Student in Fisheries Science, University of Washington