CDC faces lawsuit from First Amendment group over alleged gagging of medical experts

(Official White House Photo by Andrea Hanks)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is facing a lawsuit brought by a First Amendment advocacy group over free-speech concerns in the midst of the coronavirus crisis.

The Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University filed the lawsuit in the Southern District of New York on Tuesday after the CDC reportedly denied a Freedom of Information Act request for information about policies restricting communication between CDC employees, the press and the public.

The initial FOIA request was made on March 19 amid concerns that public health experts were being restricted in their ability to communicate openly.

“Recent news reports have indicated that the Trump administration has provided incomplete or distorted information about the pandemic, while simultaneously limiting the ability of CDC officials to communicate with the public,” the group explained in a press statement at the time.

“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,” Stephanie Krent, Legal Fellow at the Knight First Amendment Institute, alleged.

“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,” Krent added.

But while the CDC provided the group with a response, the agency reportedly denied the request for documents and ignored a proposal to narrow the request. The group pointed to reports that the White House issued a “new directive” after comments made in February by CDC Director for National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases Dr. Nancy Messonnier.

Her comments came just two days after President Donald Trump tweeted that the “Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA.”

“It’s not so much a question of if [community spread] will happen anymore, but rather more a question of exactly when this will happen and how many people in this country will have severe illness,” Messonier had said.

The Knight First Amendment Institute contended that a “new directive” soon followed from the White House in response.

“The New York Times, the Guardian, and other outlets reported that President Trump was displeased with Dr. Messonnier’s remarks. Just one day after her telebriefing, the White House reportedly issued a new directive requiring government health officials and scientists to coordinate with the Office of Vice President Mike Pence before making any public statements and appearances,” the group said in the lawsuit.

The reports, the plaintiff argued, “raised concerns that public health experts who know most about the risks to the public are not being permitted to speak candidly and that the information the government is now conveying may be incomplete, inaccurate, or misleading.”

The FOIA request was seeking any records “relating to policies or procedures governing public communications by CDC employees or contractors about the coronavirus,” as well as policies on the “coordination of communications strategy” between the CDC and the Coronavirus Task Force led by Vice President Mike Pence. Specific communications, including an email giving employees instructions on interacting with the media or public were also sought.

The CDC denied the records requests as “overly broad” and, according to the lawsuit, ignored an offer to narrow the request to “records created on or after January 29, 2020, and to records in the possession of a list of potential custodians.”

The White House is “promoting inaccurate and misleading claims about the pandemic even as it is restricting CDC employees from speaking to the press and the public,” Knight First Amendment Institute staff attorney Anna Diakun said in a statement, according to Law&Crime.

“We’re concerned about the reliability of the information the public is now getting from the government,” Diakun said, “and from a First Amendment standpoint, we’re concerned that public employees are not being permitted to speak candidly, even as private citizens.”


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