Deep Dive

Is Government Censorship Under the Trump Administration the New Norm?

Transparency and openness are essential to democracy. As Justice Louis Brandeis wrote, “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” However, administrations have ample motivation for making some information difficult or impossible for the public to obtain. In the early days of the Trump administration, some federal agencies’ websites were taken down or the information on it wasn’t updated. What happens to the public’s ability to monitor their government’s actions if information is removed from view?

For news, analysis, history & legal background read on.



News & Updates

May 15, 2019: Trump Administration is Censoring Material About the Affordable Care Act on Agency Website

A new report by the Sunlight Foundation claims that the Trump Administration is censoring Affordable Care Act (ACA)-related web content to undermine the health care program.

According to the report entitled, “Erasing the Affordable Care Act: Using Government Web Censorship to Undermine the Law,” the Sunlight Foundation’s Web Integrity Project has documented 26 instances of ACA censorship. The instances included deleted words, removed links, altered paragraphs, and removed pages on Health and Human Services (HHS) websites.

The report further claims that HHS scrubbed the term “Affordable Care Act” from many webpages, has removed information related to rights guaranteed under the ACA, has eliminated data and statistics about the ACA’s impact, and has removed links to the ACA enrollment platform.

If these types of actions are repeated on a large scale, the report warns, censorship could threaten American’s access to health care and threaten the long-term viability of the Affordable Care Act.

Sunlight Foundation

April 23, 2018: Was LGBT healthcare and scientific information deleted?

In a letter to President Trump, Senators Dianne Feinstein, Tammy Baldwin, and Patty Murray, along with sixteen others wrote “to express serious concerns about the removal of critical LGBT health and scientific information from the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Women’s Health website, and the removal of LGBT population-based data reports from the Federal Committee of Statistical Methodology (FCSM), from the Office of Management and Budget website.”

Healthcare IT News Senators’ Letter
Oct. 13, 2017: Whom Can You Trust?

Marilyn Geewax, a senior business editor with NPR, and co-chair of the First Amendment Committee for the Society of American Business Editors and Writers (SABEW), discusses what happens when federal agencies start deleting data, while Vice looks at what happened when FEMA deleted Puerto Rico information.

Poynter Vice

Sept. 12, 2017: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Tightens Reporter Access

Axios reports that according to an internal CDC email the site received, the public health protection agency has a new policy to restrict what gets out to the public. “Effective immediately and until further notice, any and all correspondence with any member of the news media, regardless of the nature of the inquiry, must be cleared through CDC’s Atlanta Communications Office,” wrote CDC public affairs officer Jeffrey Lancashire. The impact of the new policy remains unclear.

May 14, 2017: Less Data Equals Less Accountability

From enforcement actions to workplace violations, information once available in the Obama administration is now less accessible under new Trump directives. According to the piece, “Norman Eisen, who served as President Barack Obama’s special counsel for ethics and government reform, said the changes have undermined the public’s ability to hold the federal government accountable.”

Washington Post
Jan. 25, 2017: White House Claims It Did Not Order Media Blackout At EPA, Other Agencies

Press Secretary Sean Spicer claimed that the Trump administration did not impose “media gags” at the EPA and also denied responsibility for the suspension of the National Park Service Twitter account. Spicer claimed that the recent slew of social media account suspensions and media freezes were self-imposed by agency officials, not the White House.

However, media outlets, including Huffington Post and Buzzfeed, claimed they had seen memos and emails indicating administration directives.

The Verge
Jan. 25, 2017: Unverified “Alternative” Agency Social Media Accounts Appear

The controversy over the brief National Park Service Twitter shutdown that occurred over Inauguration weekend continued into the first week of the Trump presidency. The official Badlands National Park Twitter account tweeted information about climate change, seeming to contradict administration views. Those tweets were later removed, and the NPS claimed that a former park employee was responsible. However, a new, unverified Twitter account called “AltUSNatParkService” began tweeting climate change information and statements critical to President Trump.


Jan. 24, 2017: Media Blackout At EPA, USDA; USDA Ban Quickly Rescinded

On Tuesday Jan. 24, the Associated Press reported the Trump administration ordered a “media blackout” at the Environmental Protection Agency, forbidding staff from issuing press releases, blog updates, and social media posts. The AP also noted that the agency was banned from awarding new contracts or grants. In response to the EPA move, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer told reporters, “I don’t think it’s any surprise that when there’s an administration turnover, that we’re going to review the policies.”

The same day as the EPA announcement, Buzzfeed reported that the USDA was told to halt any public communications, including news releases, photos, fact sheets, and social media content. The order was quickly rescinded later that day. Science reported that the directive came from career officials, not the White House.

Buzzfeed  Buzzfeed  Science

Jan. 23, 2017: Department of Transportation Halts Social Media Following Interior Dept. Twitter Suspension

Politico reported that the Department of Transportation suspended its use of social media. While Politico initially reported that DOT staff was ordered not to post, a DOT spokesperson clarified to Politico that the suspension was a “recommendation,” not a ban. This made the DOT the second agency to curb its public communications, following the administration’s order to the Interior Department to suspend its Twitter account.


Jan. 21, 2017: Following Inauguration-Day Retweet, Interior Department Suspends Twitter Use

First reported by Gizmodo, the Trump administration on Inauguration Day instructed the Department of the Interior to temporarily suspend its use of Twitter. The directive came after the National Park Service retweeted an image comparing the size of President Obama’s 2009 and President Trump’s 2017 inauguration crowds. The image, retweeted on Friday January 20, seemed to indicate Obama’s crowd was larger. The Interior Department reactivated its Twitter accounts the next day.

CNN  Washington Post

History & Legal Cases

Jan. 24, 2017: “Message Control” is Administration Modus Operandi, Used By Obama, Bush

According to the Daily Caller, mediating the message by presidential administrations is nothing new. The article sites a 2009 executive order signed by Obama that gave him control over Congressional communiques as well as a gag order on discussions over the 2009 stimulus package. The Chicago Tribune reports on President George W. Bush’s executive order “giving him unprecedented power to keep presidential papers secret, even those that would have been released after the 12-year wait now required by law.”

Daily Caller   Chicago Tribune

Analysis & Opinion

Jan. 25, 2017: Agency Officials Downplay Media Freezes, Claim Standard Precedent

In a roundup of the various agency social media suspensions, The New York Times reported that administration and longtime agency officials claimed the moves were standard procedure during a presidential transition.

The Times reported, “Longtime employees at three of the agencies — including some career environmental regulators who conceded that they remained worried about what President Trump might do on policy matters — said such orders were not much different from those delivered by the Obama administration as it shifted policies from the departing White House of George W. Bush. They called reactions to the agency memos overblown. On Wednesday, Douglas Ericksen, a spokesman for the E.P.A., said that grants had been only briefly frozen for review, and that they would be restarted by Friday.”

The Times also quoted an anonymous EPA official who said, “I’ve lived through many transitions, and I don’t think this is a story, I don’t think it’s fair to call it a gag order. This is standard practice. And the move with regard to the grants, when a new administration comes in, you run things by them before you update the website.”

New York Times