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A federal court today ordered the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to release records concerning Trump administration policies that restricted CDC employees’ ability to speak to the press and the public about the coronavirus pandemic. The Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University filed the lawsuit last year when the CDC did not respond to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request the Institute filed seeking the policies. 

“We’re pleased with today’s decision. The public needs to understand the extent to which the Trump administration sidelined and even muzzled CDC employees in the midst of a global pandemic, preventing them from providing urgent public health information to the press and the public,” said Anna Diakun, staff attorney at the Knight First Amendment Institute. 

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

In June of 2020, the government handed over an initial set of documents about these policies, some of which were heavily redacted. But the court found that the CDC’s search for documents was inadequate and that the CDC improperly withheld some of the key documents that did turn up in its flawed search, including emails sent from then–acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney. 

“In the midst of this deadly pandemic, the public needs to be confident that the government’s public health advice reflects the views of public health officials–and not political talking points,” said Stephanie Krent, a staff attorney at the Knight Institute.

In today’s ruling, the U.S. District Court rejected virtually all of the CDC’s arguments, ordering the agency to produce several of the withheld documents on September 24, 2021, and to run a new, fully adequate search for additional documents.

Read today’s decision here: https://knightcolumbia.org/documents/op56rmzyqt
Read more about the lawsuit, Knight Institute v. CDC, here: https://knightcolumbia.org/cases/knight-institute-v-cdc
The records that were previously released through this lawsuit are available here: https://knightcolumbia.org/reading-room/cdc-speech-policies.
Lawyers on the case include Diakun, Krent, Scott Wilkens, and Alex Abdo of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University. Jennifer Pinsof also assisted with this case while serving as a legal fellow at the Knight Institute.

About the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University

The Knight First Amendment Institute defends the freedoms of speech and the press in the digital age through strategic litigation, research, and public education. It promotes a system of free expression that is open and inclusive, that broadens and elevates public discourse, and that fosters creativity, accountability, and effective self-government. www.knightcolumbia.org.