Scientists appeal suspension by Health Canada

A case that pits free speech against loyalty to an employer landed in Federal Court Tuesday

Last year Shiv Chopra was suspended, and another government scientist was given a reprimand. They had voiced their concerns publically about the way Health Canada was approving bovine growth hormone, a new drug going through the drug approval process.

The two scientists appealed their punishments, standing by their right to speak out. But Shiv Chopra couldn't speak to the media Tuesday. His employer, Health Canada, won't allow it.

His lawyer Andrew Raven was doing the talking. Raven argues, "All employees, including government employees, have a right to free speech. And that right can't be curtailed, except in very narrow circumstances that aren't applicable here."

Government lawyers are arguing that government employees' free-speech rights are limited by 'duty of loyalty' to an employer.

They also say Chopra misrepresented the approval process for bovine growth hormone, a drug that allows cows to produce more milk.

Raven says the loyalty argument is much too vague.

"Does it mean you can never speak publicly about areas of concern that you have that relate to health and safety of Canadians? Does it mean you can't swear at your boss? I mean the standard is quite open and unclear. And until it's protected with precision, it shouldn't be protected by the charter," says Raven.

Michael McBane of the Canadian Health Coalition agrees. He says, "What we need is public duty legislation to protect public servants like the Health Canada scientists who actually perform their duty with courage and suffer reprisals as a results."

The hearing is scheduled to end Wednesday, and a ruling is expected sometime later this summer. But no matter what the judge finds, this case will probably be appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada.