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SPJ passes resolution opposing restrictions on speech that could worsen a pandemic

Agencies’ control on speech may have led to significantly higher COVID-19 death toll

Kathryn Foxhall, Freedom of Information Committee Member, 202-417-4572, kfoxhall@verizon.net
Zoë Berg, SPJ Communications Coordinator, 317-920-4785, zberg@spj.org

INDIANAPOLIS – The Society of Professional Journalists said in a resolution passed Saturday that it believes the controls on employee speech by government agencies have led to severe limitations on public scrutiny of those entities and to a higher COVID-19 death toll.

SPJ cited the blockage and delays of reporters by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as particularly tragic, noting also the censorship in its daughter agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration and the National Institutes of Health.

For many years, a number of agencies have banned employees from speaking to reporters without notifying authorities, often through the agency public information offices.

The forced oversight leads to intimidation of spokespersons within agencies. Beyond that, excessive delays and total blockages often prevent reporters from speaking to people at all.

In a session at the SPJ2020 Journalism Conference this past weekend, Donald G. McNeil, Jr., a science and health reporter for The New York Times, decried the current situation at CDC and HHS, saying, “It’s a horrible experience for a journalist trying to get life-saving information out of your own government.”

SPJ has led several coalition efforts opposing these controls over six years.

The Society’s 83 delegates passed the resolution Saturday during the Business Meeting at SPJ2020 as part of a package of resolutions in support of journalism.

The full resolution on speech controls is as follows:

Resolution 10: A Resolution Opposing Restrictions on Speech that Could Worsen a Pandemic
Submitted by: Kathryn Foxhall, Member, Freedom of Information Committee
Cosponsors: SPJ Freedom of Information Committee; Randy Showstack, president, Washington, D.C., SPJ Pro Chapter
Delegate Action: Approved

WHEREAS the Society of Professional Journalists has long spoken out against controls on speech that pressure people not to speak to journalists without notifying authorities, often through public information officers;

WHEREAS SPJ has called the restrictions censorship and authoritarian;

WHEREAS the COVID-19 pandemic has now killed nearly 200,000 people in the United States and no one knows when there be relief;

WHEREAS the Society believes the secrecy caused by these controls on speech has led to agencies severely limiting public scrutiny of themselves; to inevitable incidents of government disfunction; and therefore, to a significantly higher death toll from COVID-19 than would otherwise happened;

WHEREAS the Society decries in particular the tragedy that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has employed this oversight, delay and blockage of reporters for many years, including in its daughter agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration, and the National Institutes of Health;

WHEREAS the Society further notes evidence that HHS and its agencies continue to entrench these controls, for example with:
instructions from the current Assistant Secretary of Public Affairs that all press releases and press inquiries for the 80,000-person department go through the ASPA office;
— a CDC memo telling staff who deal with reporters asking to talk to someone: “Just because there are outstanding requests or folks keep getting asked to do a particular interview does not mean it has to be fulfilled.”

WHEREAS these controls in effect silence or inhibit the great majority of people in HHS who have something important to say about the pandemic;

WHEREAS there have been many other incidents of blockage and controls on journalism before and during the pandemic in many agencies and parts of the nation;

WHEREAS the continuation of this censorship will also exacerbate future crises; and

WHEREAS the Society has congratulated Brechner Center for Freedom of Information Director Frank LoMonte on his extensive legal analysis that finds such controls on speech are unconstitutional and many courts have said so;

THEREFORE LET IT BE RESOLVED that the Society of Professional Journalists, meeting in convention virtually on September 12¸2020, calls on the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to explain why controls on the speech of its employees are safer for the public than is free speech and why that department has the right to decide this under the U.S Constitution.

SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to informing citizens; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and fights to protect First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press. Support excellent journalism and fight for your right to know. Become a member, give to the Legal Defense Fund, or give to the SPJ Foundation.


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