First Amendment Advocacy Group’s FOIA Request Seeks Info on White House ‘Silencing Public Health Experts’

A pro-First Amendment group concerned about reported White House “silencing [of] public health experts” filed a Freedom of Information Act request on Thursday in the hopes of learning more about the polices of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University said it was seeking CDC policies “governing the circumstances in which CDC employees may communicate with members of the press and the public” after
recent “alarming” reports. These are the records sought:

Any records relating to policies or procedures governing public communications by CDC employees or contractors about the coronavirus; Any records relating to policies or procedures for the coordination of communications strategy between the CDC (or its employees)and the Coronavirus Task Force led by Vice President Pence; Emails sent by CDC Public Affairs Officer Jeffrey Lancashire on or around August 31, 2017, that contain instructions for employees regarding communications with members of the news media or the public; The CDC’s policies on employee communications with news media and the public in effect from January 2017 to present; and Any directives or guidance related to the policies on employee communications with news media and the public in effect from January 2017 to the present.

One footnote in the FOIA request got to the heart of the gripe. It pointed to various recent reports about the Trump administration’s response in times of global pandemic and an alleged unwillingness to hear the truth from its health experts:

Trump’s Mismanagement Helped Fuel Coronavirus Crisis, Politico (Mar. 7, 2020, 9:02 PM), https://perma.cc/E8CK-3URE (“As the outbreak has grown, Trump has become attached to the daily count of coronavirus cases…, reiterating that he wants the U.S. numbers kept as low as possible. Health officials have found explicit ways to oblige him by highlighting the most optimistic outcomes in briefings, and their agencies have tamped down on promised transparency.”); also Deirdre Shesgreen et al., From “Great” to “Blindsided”: How Trump Changed His Coronavirus Message Amid Fear, Confusion in the White House, USA Today (Mar. 10, 2010, 2:50 PM), https://perma.cc/JW2Q-7MU6 (quoting Rep. Tom Malinowski as saying “[t]he message that the White House is sending is that they don’t want anybody who tells the president or the public something that the president doesn’t want to hear. . . . This becomes an urgent problem in a public health emergency”); Denise Grady, Not His First Epidemic: Dr. Anthony Fauci Sticks to the Facts, N.Y. Times (Mar. 8, 2020), https://perma.cc/JYE2-CJLU.

Per the request, such reports are “troubling” and may implicate First Amendment issues.

“If these reports are accurate, the restrictions on the ability of CDC employees to share critical information about public health emergencieswithout political interference raise serious concerns,” the FOIA filing went on. “And to the extent these directives or others also limit what CDC employees can say in their personal capacities on matters of great public concern, they implicate the First Amendment.”

Stephanie Krent, Legal Fellow at the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, said in a statement obtained by Law&Crime that the reports were “alarming.”

“It’s alarming that the White House is reportedly silencing public health experts at the CDC even as it has issued inaccurate and misleading statements about the pandemic,” Krent said. “We’re concerned that government policies restricting CDC employees’ speech may be interfering with the public’s access to accurate and vital information. If these policies prevent CDC employees from speaking out as private citizens, the policies also raise serious First Amendment concerns.”

CDC FOIA request by Law&Crime on Scribd

[Image via Drew Angerer/Getty Images]

Matt Naham is managing editor of Law&Crime. He formerly worked as news editor and weekend editor at Rare.

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