Even as the deaths of Americans from COVID-19 climb past 175,000, the Trump administration continues to oppose scientific transparency. After five months of being stonewalled by the Center for Disease Control and the Department of Health and Human Services, Open The Government and the Government Accountability Project filed a lawsuit against both agencies. The lawsuit aims to force the release of records, under the Freedom of Information Act, of their communication strategy in response to COVID-19 as part of the White House’s coronavirus taskforce.
At the center of the litigation are documents relating to the White House’s attempts to silence scientists, even going as far as classifying coronavirus briefings, resulting in critical professionals being excluded from briefings because they lacked security clearances. The documents will reveal whether the White House’s communication strategy entailed muzzling scientists and policymakers’ with the intent of controlling the narrative around COVID-19. They are also of great significance because CDC officials need to be forthcoming with public health safety information without fear of professional reprisal.
Although there are some limitations the federal government can place on employees’ right to free speech, these restrictions require the government to first remind employees of their protected rights and do not limit their ability to disclose information about decisions that risk lives. Without a review of the details of the restrictions the White House placed on the CDC and HHS, it is impossible to know if scientists were made aware of their rights to disclosure.
Instead of transparency for the public benefit, the CDC and HHS failed to provide documents and willfully ignored numerous communications related to the information requests. By refusing to release these records, the public is missing crucial information on the extent to which scientists’ expertise was curtailed and the impact this would have had on the effectiveness of the government’s response to the pandemic.
Open The Government and the Government Accountability Project are jointly represented by Loevy and Loevy, a leading civil rights firm that has successfully represented numerous clients in FOIA litigation. The suit was filed in the United States District Court under case number 20-cv-02290.