Since taking the reins of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, the federal agency that oversees Voice of America and other storied overseas broadcasters, CEO Michael Pack has set alarm bells ringing with a campaign to exert greater control over the networks’ newsrooms. Those efforts will now have to come to an abrupt halt thanks to a Friday ruling from the federal district court in Washington, D.C., which found that Pack’s interventions violated the First Amendment.
The lawsuit, Turner v. U.S. Agency for Global Media, was brought by senior officials at USAGM who were suspended by Pack earlier this year, as well as VOA’s current program director, Kelu Chao. The plaintiffs argued that a range of actions Pack has taken since his June confirmation — declining to renew journalists’ visas, investigating reporters for perceived partisan bias and sidelining key personnel, to name a few — violated the Constitution as well as the statutory “firewall” that Congress established to protect the broadcasters’ independence.
The Reporters Committee filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the plaintiffs, emphasizing that journalists at VOA can assert First Amendment rights against USAGM notwithstanding their status as federal employees.
On Friday evening, Chief Judge Beryl Howell agreed in part, granting the plaintiffs an injunction that forbids Pack from “taking or influencing personnel actions against individual journalists or editors, attempting to influence content through communications with individual journalists or editors, and investigating purported breaches of journalistic ethics.” While Chief Judge Howell declined to hold that VOA journalists’ rights are equal to those of any other journalist, as the Reporters Committee and the plaintiffs had urged, she agreed that the defendants were wrong to suggest network reporters have no First Amendment rights just because the government pays their salaries.
The work of journalism, she concluded, “implicates additional constitutional interests” not captured by the ordinary precedents dealing with public employees’ speech on duty. Measuring those important interests against the government’s reasons for abridging them, Chief Judge Howell rejected the plaintiffs’ challenges to decisions Pack made at a programmatic level (such as adopting a new conflict-of-interest policy and a new approach to visa renewals), but found that he overreached when interfering with “day-to-day” editorial and journalistic decision-making.
Chief Judge Howell did not reach the merits of the plaintiffs’ statutory claims, concluding that she lacked jurisdiction to consider them. Congress is actively considering reforms that would strengthen the statutory firewall, to prevent future efforts to achieve political control over the broadcasters.
The ruling in Turner is the first to recognize that journalists at VOA and its sister broadcasters have First Amendment rights in connection with their “core editorial and journalistic functions,” as well as a powerful affirmation that “to transform these outlets into house organs for the United States Government would be inimical to their fundamental mission.”
USAGM has not yet indicated whether it plans to appeal.
The Reporters Committee regularly files friend-of-the-court briefs and its attorneys represent journalists and news organizations pro bono in court cases that involve First Amendment freedoms, the newsgathering rights of journalists and access to public information. Stay up-to-date on our work by signing up for our monthly newsletter and following us on Twitter or Instagram.