NEW YORK—The Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University today filed a lawsuit seeking immediate release of records from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) concerning White House and CDC policies restricting CDC employees’ ability to speak to the press and the public, including about the coronavirus pandemic. Last month, the Institute filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request seeking these same policies. It has not yet received responsive documents.

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

Recent news stories indicate that the White House started requiring CDC scientists and health officials to coordinate with the Office of Vice President Mike Pence before speaking with members of the press or public about the pandemic. This policy was put into place after public health officials publicly contradicted the administration’s messaging.

The CDC itself has imposed additional restrictions on the ability of its employees to speak publicly in the past. To the extent that these policies continue to prevent CDC employees from speaking out as private citizens, they raise serious First Amendment concerns.

“In the midst of this deadly pandemic, we need to be confident that we are receiving information based on the CDC’s expertise. If the CDC has been sidelined, the public needs to know,” said Stephanie Krent, a Legal Fellow at the Knight Institute.

The CDC denied the Knight Institute’s earlier request for expedited processing arguing that the Institute had “failed to show that there is an imminent threat to the life or physical safety of an individual.”

Today’s complaint is available here.

Last month’s FOIA request is available here. 

For more information, contact Lorraine Kenny, [email protected]