Knight First Amendment Institute, a leading press advocacy group, filed a lawsuit on April 2nd against the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) seeking the immediate release of documents related to policies governing CDC employees’ ability to speak to the press and the public about matters relating to the novel coronavirus.
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According to the complaint, Knight filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request on March 19th for all records “relating to policies or procedures governing public communications by CDC employees or contractors about the coronavirus.” The request also sought specific emails sent by the agency’s public affairs officer, as well as records relating to policies governing communication between CDC employees and the Office of Vice President Mike Pence.
In a press statement about the lawsuit, the Knight Institute said it filed the FOIA request after a number of news stories suggested that the CDC employees had been ordered to consult with the Office of the Vice President before talking to members of the press or public about the pandemic.
“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,” she said.
According to the lawsuit, the CDC did respond to the Knight Institute’s FOIA request, although only to inform them that their application for “expediting processing” had been denied because it “failed to show that there is an imminent threat to the life or physical safety of an individual.”
On March 26th, the CDC sent a second letter informing Knight that their request was too broad. According to the complaint, the advocacy organization has not yet heard back from the CDC despite having sent a follow-up request on March 27th narrowing the scope of their request.