The National Coalition Against Censorship is closely following developments in the United States that could threaten our civil liberties as responses to the coronavirus pandemic test governments and social structures worldwide. During a global public health crisis, medical needs are, understandably, prioritized. But our needs are many-faceted. As governments work to limit the spread of COVID-19, we must vigilantly protect our rights to freedom of speech and expression and defend our ability to both share and access information. And as public spaces, schools and cultural institutions shutter, however temporarily, we must look for ways to continue civil discourse, to promote artistic and cultural expression and to engage with one another as fellow citizens and humans.

NCAC continues to track and monitor pandemic-related issues that threaten to chill free speech or infringe on our rights to express ourselves, share information, think, create and explore ideas. We will update this list as the situation develops. If you have specific censorship concerns or questions, please reach out.

Government Transparency

In the days before a national state of emergency was declared, it was revealed that Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) meetings regarding the coronavirus had been classified since January. HHS oversees the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), among other agencies. Meetings were held in a secure area usually reserved for military or intelligence operations. In addition to preventing information from being shared with the public, holding classified meetings prevents health, legal, and other experts without upper level security clearance from participating. As Defending Rights and Dissent writes, “It is an abuse of the classification process to classify deliberations about a public health crisis. The American people have a right to know the extent of the threat posed by the coronavirus and what steps to take. They have a right to accurate public health information. Government officials should not be covering up information in order to downplay the extent of the threat or hide their own missteps. And now more than ever, we need strong whistleblower protections.” (Emphasis ours)

Information Control

It can be tempting, in times of crisis, to label dissent as dangerous. But our democracy demands participation, and we must be allowed to access dissenting views and express our own. Disagreement and debate are crucial to thoughtful decision-making.

We must be able to question our government’s response to this pandemic from all angles. In an attempt to write the legacy they’d prefer, Chinese censors have taken harsh steps to track and punish those criticizing the government online, rather than allow a robust and necessary assessment of how the pandemic began, spread and was handled. What happens next time, when no lessons are permitted to be remembered? The Chinese government has also expelled US journalists, limiting dissemination of accurate information about the virus from its source.

Another example of overbroad control of information is Morocco. Authorities there have criminalized misinformation in misguided efforts to prevent panic, but their power to punish speech has been extended to voices critical of the government and its response to the crisis.

Scientific Speech

Censorship of science by the US government takes the form of distorting, discouraging, and redacting research results for political reasons. The final result is suppression of vital information. (See here for information on censorship of climate science and stem cell research.) The Trump Administration has shown a willingness to muzzle scientists and early attempts to keep discussions of coronavirus classified raise concerns about the motivations behind overly stringent control on vital scientific information and medical expertise, as well as about it’s human cost.  

Scientists and medical professionals must be free to share their knowledge and recommendations, even when it puts pressure on governments.

Politically-Motivated Travel Restrictions

Nations across the globe are instituting travel restrictions and full bans on entry for non-citizens. Travel bans can violate Americans’ First Amendment right to receive information by preventing citizens from interacting with the ideas and viewpoints of foreign nationals. Freedom of speech includes the ability to facilitate the free international exchange of people and ideas. These bans can be particularly devastating to artists and cultural producers vulnerable for speaking out in repressive regimes.

The nature of COVID-19 and its spread make these choices understandable, but we must ensure that these restrictions are medically necessary and as limited as possible within the recommendations of experts. Broad, indefinite travel restrictions can easily be manipulated by political motivations, as seen during the Ebola outbreak in 2014.

Unchecked Surveillance 

In the early stages of the coronavirus outbreak in the US, containment strategies involved the use of increased surveillance and tracking. These methods of infection-mapping can be useful, and necessary, during such times. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) cautions, though, that, “any extraordinary measures used to manage a specific crisis must not become permanent fixtures in the landscape of government intrusions into daily life. There is historical precedent for life-saving programs such as these, and their intrusions on digital liberties, to outlive their urgency.” EFF lays out principles for data collection and digital monitoring of potential carriers of COVID-19:

  • Privacy intrusions must be necessary and proportionate
  • Data collection based on science, not bias
  • Expiration–invasive programs must be rolled back after crisis is contained
  • Transparency in communicating policies with public
  • Due process must not be sacrificed

As Albert Fox Cahn, the executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, told the New York Times: “We could so easily end up in a situation where we empower local, state or federal government to take measures in response to this pandemic that fundamentally change the scope of American civil rights.” Read more here

Increased Reliance on Social Media Platforms

As a growing number of Americans work from home, or have their employment curtailed entirely, and practice social distancing, social media platforms are becoming increasingly important spaces for gathering, sharing news and disseminating information. Some have criticized the platforms for allowing misinformation to proliferate or for not cracking down on racist speech relating to the coronavirus. Social media companies are adapting their rules about what information is allowed in real time as the pandemic spreads. Largely, though, platforms like Facebook and Twitter have been praised for their management of information that could be damaging to public health and for providing access to social connection in a time of physical disconnection. 

Social media companies, however, have a complicated relationship with free speech. As private companies, they are free to set their own user guidelines and content standards. But as public spaces, many (including NCAC) argue that they have a responsibility to respect the principles of free speech and protect their users’ rights to express themselves. While both Twitter and Facebook frequently extol their commitments to free speech, they often struggle to balance user needs, commercial concerns and free speech protections. In an effort to protect its content moderators from COVID-19, Facebook is shifting most of its content moderation decisions to its algorithmic tools, however some of its most sensitive decisions are being moved to other staffers. Unfortunately, the automated tools used by Facebook often get decisions wrong – such mistakes will be much more frequent while human moderators are mostly absent. The scarcity of human decision-makers will also inevitably complicate an already difficult appeals process.