Paul A. LaViolette is trying to get his job back at the U.S. Patent Office. He just cleared a major hurdle by persuading the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that he can't be fired for believing in cold fusion, because this belief constitutes, or is inseparable from, his religious belief, which is protected under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. (According to a recent profile in Washington City Paper, LaViolette's religion is astrology.) Chatterbox argued yesterday that the legal reasoning behind the EEOC's July 7 decision, which Curt Suplee reported this week in the Washington Post, would allow just about any random whim to be defined as religious belief. If everything is religion, is anything religion?
[Update, Sept. 13: LaViolette disputes Chatterbox's characterization of his religious beliefs as "astrology." For his views, click here.]
But of all the questions raised by the LaViolette case, the legal question is probably the easiest to answer (even though the EEOC flubbed it). Whether legally protected or not, should an individual's personal beliefs get him fired from his job? Why did the Patent Office fire LaViolette, anyway? Has the Patent Office itself--an important gatekeeper to the commercial innovations driving our current economic boom--gone a little haywire?
LaViolette is unwilling to say much about the particular circumstances of his firing because, he says, he doesn't want to imperil the Commerce Department's ongoing administrative proceeding regarding his possible reinstatement. A crucial question, of course, is whether LaViolette was penalized for his beliefs (which would make his firing morally, if not legally wrong) or for any on-the-job actions, with which his superiors disagree, that flowed from those beliefs (which might make his firing justifiable, even advisable). LaViolette specifically declined to answer this, and Chatterbox has thus far been unable to get any information out of the Commerce Department. A logical suspicion is that LaViolette was handing out patents for dubious cold-fusion technologies. (Apparently, a few have been granted.) But according to a May 1999 article by David Voss in Science, LaViolette "did not issue any patents during his short tenure" [italics Chatterbox's]. [Correction, 9/8: The Science piece was wrong. LaViolette issued four patents during his tenure. None of them, however, had anything to do with cold fusion. LaViolette's unit worked on patents regarding magnetic resonance imaging.] LaViolette hinted to Chatterbox that his firing was linked to "my support of a fellow who was putting on a conference on new energy technologies." That fellow is Thomas Valone, another cold-fusion enthusiast who worked at the Patent Office. Valone attempted to hold the conference, which included a speaker on cold fusion, at a Commerce Department auditorium but was rebuffed by Commerce officials and subsequently dismissed, like LaViolette, from the Patent Office.
Voss's Science article suggested that Valone recruited LaViolette in 1998 as part of a cultish conspiracy to infiltrate the Patent Office with cold-fusion enthusiasts. The allegation also turned up in Suplee's Post article and on a Web page maintained by Bob Park, a physics professor at the University of Maryland who heads the American Physical Society's Washington office. Valone and LaViolette both dispute the infiltration scenario. They concede that three months before LaViolette was hired, Valone sent out a fax to friends, which ended up on the Internet, urging "all able-bodied free energy technologists" to "infiltrate the Patent Office." But Valone says this was a "tongue-in-cheek effort" and that he never meant for it to get onto the Web. (LaViolette says he never saw the message before he went to work for the Patent Office.) Valone and LaViolette further concede that LaViolette joined the Patent Office at Valone's suggestion, but they reject the term "recruit." Here is how LaViolette tells the story on his Web site:
In May 1998 Tom did call me, but that was to ask me for a copy of my book Earth Under Fire. After discussing that matter of business, I proceeded to tell him how I had been busily looking for work further south since jobs were then scarce in my hometown of Schenectady. Tom told me of the job opportunity in Washington at the Patent Office. I initiated the discussion of job hunting, and Tom, being a good friend of mine, responded with the suggestion to look for work at the Patent Office. ... He did not mention his letter or suggest to me that I "infiltrate" the Patent Office. ... The truth is that I did not apply for the Patent Office job with the intention of changing the Patent Office's antiquated views on energy technology or for any other reason "subversive" to the American Physical Society's sacrosanct scientific dogma.
To summarize: We don't know of any actions LaViolette took on the job that would have got him fired (but LaViolette won't say outright that he took no such actions). We doknow that LaViolette came to the Patent Office at the suggestion of another cold-fusion enthusiast (but the principals deny this was part of any conspiratorial effort). Both men claim to have lost their Patent Office jobs in connection with a zany conference one of them tried to throw at the Commerce Department.
Were the firings justified? Chatterbox still lacks sufficient facts to draw a responsible conclusion. Chatterbox does suspect, however, that Voss may have been onto something when he argued in his Science article that the mere presence of such controversies is evidence that the patent-examination process is right now under some strain:
The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) is now staggering under an onslaught of patent applications. Its nearly 3,000 examiners must process roughly 240,000 intellectual property claims every year, a number that is increasing by more than 8% annually because of increases in software and biotech applications. Says one former USPTO employee, "They are desperate and they're hiring like crazy." The office plans to add another 700 examiners in the coming year. And as Richard Maulsby, a PTO spokesperson, admits, "It is very difficult for us to do all this hiring and to maintain quality."
Think about it. You're an engineer. The technology sector is making engineers rich. Are you going to work for the Patent Office? Of course not! You're going to work for a dot-com or a biotech firm! This would tend to create job opportunities in Washington for outside-the-mainstream zealots--or, if you prefer, visionaries.