Tuesday, April 29, 2003

Forest Service Blocks E-Mail Comments

This AP story came in over the weekend and I haven't had the time to address it. The US forest service says it is going to ignore public comments on proposed rule changes when they come from certain e-mail servers or on preprinted post cards.

A spokesman said the agency is not barring all e-mail — only e-mail that goes through an outside server such as a business or environmental Web site. The agency is also barring other "duplicative materials" such as form letters, printed post cards and lists that include spaces for respondents to check off statements they agree with.

Such comments, whether electronic or on paper, can be overwhelming and provide little useful information, said Forest Service spokesman Joseph Walsh. The Forest Service has counted such comments in the past, he said, adding that the new policy is subject to review.
This is a terrible idea. The right to petition the government is fundamental. A citizen has a right to speak their peace at a regulatory hearing and that opinion taken into consideration. That a citizen’s efforts are part of a coordinated group effort is irrelevant. The government can easily separate substantive comments from non-substantive comments, just like it did for the Microsoft antitrust settlement public comment period, when the government received over 30,000 comments. Hundreds of CAC supports lodged their own comments with the Department of Justice opposing any sanction to be placed on Microsoft whatsoever. CAC's own comments were included in the 30 or so "major comments list," fittingly since CAC has followed the case since its inception. Are comments like these to be made irrelevant because they were part of an organized effort on the part of people choosing to communicate their principles to their government? I think not.

So while I vehemently disagree with most of the comments the Forest Service would ignore (they are mostly the product of environmentalists), I think there are better ways for the government to evaluate these comments than by simply ignoring them.

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