Misleading and even dangerous information about the COVID-19 pandemic has circulated widely over the past few months, sometimes originating from the White House itself. At the same time, the administration has reportedly “sidelined” and “muzzled” the nation’s public-health experts at the CDC in an effort to tightly control the narrative around the pandemic. While the executive branch certainly has an interest in speaking with one voice during a global health crisis, reports have suggested that this administration is sacrificing scientific accuracy for the sake of political expediency, with catastrophic consequences.
To find out whether that’s the case, the Knight First Amendment Institute filed a Freedom of Information Act request and lawsuit seeking the CDC’s and the administration’s policies on whether and when CDC experts may speak to the public. On Tuesday, the government handed over the first set of documents about these policies, and what those documents reveal—and conceal—should only deepen the public’s concerns.
Though some are heavily redacted, the four documents that the government disclosed (available on the Institute’s website) give a glimpse into how the government is handling media inquiries about COVID-19.
First, communications about the pandemic are treated differently than other communications. Although the CDC has a general media relations policy, which was last updated in September 2019, the other documents make clear that there is a new policy in place for media inquiries related to COVID-19. The new policy appears to be embodied in a twenty-page COVID-19 “Communication and Media Strategy” document—but that’s all we can tell you about it, because the version of the policy the government produced was marked as a draft and, aside from the cover page, entirely redacted.
Second, the little we do know about the CDC’s COVID-19 communications policy suggests that it is exceedingly restrictive and may even be unconstitutional. One email, sent to staff at the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, instructs employees to forward any media inquiries about COVID-19 to the CDC’s News Media Branch, whether or not the employee already “know[s] the source or if it is unsolicited.” The decision about whether and how to respond to that inquiry is then out of the employee’s hands: that determination is made by the CDC communications team and other officials involved in the COVID-19 response. Another email outlines a complicated approval chain for media inquiries related to COVID-19, including separate CDC, HHS, and Office of the Vice President approval procedures.
From the unredacted parts of these two emails, the procedures appear to apply broadly to any media inquiries concerning COVID-19, regardless of their nature. Most troubling, while the CDC’s general media policy explicitly notes that CDC employees need not seek preapproval from their supervisors before publicly conveying their personal views, the COVID-19 communications policy doesn’t appear to contain such a carve-out. That’s concerning because the carve-out isn’t just a courtesy; it is a First Amendment requirement. Because the First Amendment protects the right of government employees to speak out as citizens on matters of public concern, federal agencies generally cannot prevent them from doing so except in narrow circumstances.
It may be that the full policy does contain an exemption for when CDC employees seek to express themselves as citizens, rather than on behalf of the CDC. But because the government has redacted the twenty-page COVID-19 Communication and Media Strategy policy, the full First Amendment implications are not entirely clear.
Most troubling, while the CDC’s general media policy explicitly notes that CDC employees need not seek preapproval from their supervisors before publicly conveying their personal views, the COVID-19 communications policy doesn’t appear to contain such a carve-out. That’s concerning because the carve-out isn’t just a courtesy; it is a First Amendment requirement.
What’s more, because the government has hidden the Office of the Vice President’s involvement behind a claim of executive privilege, the public can’t fully assess the level of control the administration is exerting over what CDC experts say. It’s still unclear whether certain CDC scientists are prevented from speaking to journalists altogether and how the administration is seeking to control messaging. Now that CDC Director Robert Redfield has resumed regular media briefings after three months without them, knowing if and how the administration is influencing his message is especially important.
It’s also unclear whether particular media outlets are given priority—although we do know from an internal email that the CDC, “as a rule,” is supposed to reject inquiries from Greta Van Susteren and Voice of America. That email referenced a White House newsletter accusing the outlet of having “amplified Beijing’s propaganda,” an attack described by the New York Times as “so overheated that some readers worried that hackers had infiltrated the White House’s networks.”
In their redacted form, these documents do nothing to alleviate concerns that the administration has enacted a sweeping communications policy related to COVID-19, one that allows it to stifle dissenting views of CDC employees. The government’s next production is scheduled for June 18, and if it continues to hide the answers we seek behind redactions, the Knight Institute will be headed back to court.
Photo credit: Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Dr. Robert Redfield (C) speaks about the COVID-19 (coronavirus) alongside Vice President Mike Pence and members of the Coronavirus Task Force in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House in Washington, DC, March 9, 2020 (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)