Judge Blocks Trump Appointee From ‘Interfering’ With Voice of America

November 23, 2020 Updated: November 23, 2020

President Donald Trump’s appointee to lead a federal agency that oversees government-funded broadcasters likely violated the Constitution by trying to guide coverage, a federal judge has ruled.

District of Columbia District Judge Beryl Howell, an Obama appointee, ruled that actions by U.S. Agency for Global Media CEO Michael Pack likely violated the First Amendment.

Howell ruled in favor of a lawsuit brought by five senior management officials at the agency, known as USAGM, and Kelu Chao, the program director for Voice of America (VOA), a government-funded broadcaster that reports U.S. news to international audiences. The five officials were placed on paid administrative leave in August because their security clearances had not been properly investigated.

The plaintiffs had argued that actions by Pack and his co-defendants, who Pack appointed to senior leadership positions within the agency, violated the First Amendment and two laws.

Howell agreed.

“Chao and her colleagues are likely to succeed in showing that defendants’ actions have already violated and continue to violate their First Amendment rights because, among other unconstitutional effects, they result in self-censorship and the chilling of First Amendment expression,” Howell ruled in the 76-page opinion.

The violations include “taking or influencing personnel actions against individual journalists or editors, attempting directly to monitor VOA and network content through communications with individual editors or journalists, and undertaking their own investigations of alleged discrete breaches of journalistic ethics,” the judge said.

USAGM is an independent establishment of the federal government that currently operates five networks, including Voice of America.

Howell barred defendants “from making or interfering with personnel decisions” with respect to the five networks and from directly communicating with editors and journalists at the networks, aside from the appointed presidents and directors. She also said defendants cannot conduct investigations into journalistic content, editors, or journalists, or alleged editorial lapses or breaches of ethics.

Epoch Times Photo
The Voice of America building in Washington on June 15, 2020. (Andrew Harnik/AP Photo)

The ruling is temporary as the court weighs its final decision. Howell denied requests for an injunction on Pack’s fiduciary duties to USAGM and the defendants’ alleged violations of the two laws, the United States International Broadcasting Act of 1994 and the Administrative Procedure Act.

USAGM did not respond to a request for comment.

In a statement, acting Voice of America Director Elez Biberaj said that “editorial independence and journalistic integrity free of political interference are the core elements that sustain VOA and make us America’s voice.”

Lee Crain, an attorney representing the plaintiffs, added that “the court confirmed that the First Amendment forbids Mr. Pack and his team from attempting to take control of these journalistic outlets, from investigating their journalists for purported ‘bias,’ and from attempting to influence or control their reporting content.”

The Senate in June confirmed Pack would head USAGM. He is the first Senate-confirmed USAGM head.

Pack is a filmmaker and former educator who recently helped create a documentary about Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Pack told senators before his confirmation that he planned on addressing the scandals besetting the agency, including alleged bribe-taking and confirmed stealing of government funds.

Pack told The Epoch Times earlier this year that he wanted the broadcasters working under him to present “a variety of U.S. opinions” on matters such as the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus pandemic and Black Lives Matter demonstrations.

“We need to … stand for American values, not [Democrat] values or Republican values, but American values like democracy and human rights,” he said.

As Pack took the helm of the agency, it published a rule about a so-called firewall between the USAGM newsroom and the government’s Executive Branch.

Pack later rescinded the rule, arguing it “was both in tension with the law and harmful to the agency and the U.S. national interest.”

One internal investigation launched after Pack became head of USAGM involved a video of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden that was published by Voice of America.

The VOA-branded video “can only be described as an apparent election advertisement for presumptive Democratic presidential nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden,” Voice of America acknowledged in a statement.

Follow Zachary on Twitter: @zackstieber