By Mary O’KEEFE
On Wednesday the U.S. Supreme Court said that background checks of low risk employees at Jet Propulsion Laboratory could continue. The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had ruled to hold the background checks while the case was moving through the court system.
Employees of JPL had brought suit against NASA and the federal government claiming the background checks were excessive and unconstitutional. The employees who brought the suit were all at low-risk jobs. Led by plaintiff Robert Nelson, the employees objected to the checks that included questionnaires to be filled out by friends, casual acquaintances or those the employee did not know concerning everything from drug use to financial problems and even sexual orientation.
They were concerned that the information gathered would not be kept confidential. In Justice Samuel Alito’s opinion however the Privacy Act would prevent that and that the checks are constitutional.
“In light of the protection provided by the Privacy Act’s nondisclosure requirement, and because the challenged portions of the forms consist of reasonable inquiries in an employment background check, we conclude that the Government’s inquiries do not violate a constitutional right to informational privacy,” Alito wrote.
On Wednesday Nelson said he was still reading the opinion however he did feel the lawsuit had an affect on the background check. President Barack Obama’s administration and NASA had changed the document that contained many of the points the plaintiffs had argued.
“What the administration and the government is saying is it is okay for us to trust them,” Nelson said. “I have no doubt that Obama is an honorable man but [what of] future administrations?”
His concern is this opinion sets a precedence that could pose a problem in the future, that a background check could be held as a way to control scientific findings.
“Like climate change,” he said.
If a conclusion was opposite of what a particular administrator or administration may want the dossier that had been collected on an extensive background check could be used as pressure to modify a conclusion.
“We will feel like we are working with a cloud over our head,” he said. And he is concerned that the information could be used out of context.
“I have an arrest record [for example]. I walked into a public eating facility and told the manager I was not placing my order until the person sitting next to me was served. He was an African American. The charges [against me] were trespassing and disturbing the peace. … I am proud of that action.”
He said that he and others who took those steps might have played a role in opening minds enough so that we can now have an African American president and an African American head at NASA.
“But if you just look at it [on a background check] someone could say that was [just an arrest] for disorderly conduct.”