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Turner v. US Agency for Global Media

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  1. First Amendment

Court: U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia

Date Filed: Oct. 22, 2020

Update: On Nov. 20, Chief Judge Beryl Howell of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled that the editorial interventions by the leadership of the U.S. Agency for Global Media violated the First Amendment. While she declined to hold that USAGM journalists’ rights are equal to those of any other journalist, as the Reporters Committee and the plaintiffs had urged, Chief Judge Howell agreed that the defendants were wrong to suggest network reporters have no First Amendment rights just because the government pays their salaries.

Background: In early October, five senior executives at the U.S. Agency for Global Media who CEO Michael Pack suspended in August sued the agency, Pack and his aides to enforce the statutory “firewall” that preserves the editorial independence of the congressionally funded broadcasters administered by the USAGM, including Voice of America.

The lawsuit, filed by attorneys at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP, came shortly after a congressional hearing in late September, which Pack refused to attend despite being subpoenaed. At the hearing, lawmakers from both parties expressed concern with Pack’s leadership at USAGM.

The suit challenged an array of efforts to interfere with broadcaster operations, including direct editorial interference by Pack aides through investigations of alleged “bias”; Pack’s refusal to process J-1 visa renewals for foreign journalists; the mass removal of the executives themselves; and the sidelining or termination of key editorial personnel.

Our Position: The court should grant the plaintiffs’ request for a preliminary injunction to prevent USAGM, Pack and his aides from further interfering with the editorial independence of the broadcasters administered by the agency.

  • The credibility of the USAGM networks is inseparable from their editorial independence from political pressure.
  • Journalists at the USAGM networks are journalists, and receive First Amendment protections.

Quote: “Congress, had it wanted to, could have founded broadcasters that did nothing but transmit State Department talking points. Instead, Congress established a short, closed list of constraints on broadcasting content … and otherwise guaranteed the networks an independence equal to that of private news organizations. That is, Congress mandated professional journalism of the highest quality, a mandate that law, regulation, and functional norms have protected for decades. VOA is clearly a First Amendment institution.”

Related: Following attacks by President Trump and the White House on Voice of America, the Reporters Committee wrote letters to the Senate Foreign Relations and House Foreign Affairs Committees urging Congress to preserve the broadcasters’ editorial firewall.

Reporters Committee attorneys have also written extensively about the need to preserve the international broadcasters’ editorial independence and published legal analysis highlighting how Pack’s various moves since taking over at USAGM, including his refusal to renew journalists’ visas, have technically violated the firewall.