Memorandum sent to employees of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)

Reports of Federal Government Agencies Directed Not to Communicate with the American Public

For the past decade, the Sunlight Foundation has advocated for all branches of the federal government to use modern technologies to inform and engage the American people, from social media to websites. We adamantly oppose measures that limit disclosing documents and data to the public, particularly the publication of scientific papers, research and analysis, or public access to government scientists or technologists that can explain the findings.

The following list are reported formal actions to limit public communication at federal agencies.

  • Officials at the Department of Health and Human Services were reportedly directed “not to send any correspondence to public officials (to include Members of Congress and state and local officials) between now and February 3, unless specifically authorized by the Department.” An unnamed HHS official told Politico reports were in doubt: “Contrary to erroneous media reports, HHS and its agencies continue to communicate fully about its work through all of its regular communication channels with the public, the media and other relevant audiences. There is no directive to do otherwise.”On January 26, however, Congressman Elijah Cummings and Congressman Frank Pallone, Jr. published a copy of the memorandum (see above) that was sent to HHS employees and called on the White House to “rescind all policies on employee communications that do not comply with the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act and other federal statutes.” [SOURCES: Politico, Huffington Post]
  • The Environmental Protection Agency froze grant making, restricted social media, and told its employees not to talk about it. The Associated Press obtained and reviewed email sent to EPA staff since the inauguration that outlined prohibitions on press releases, blog posts, updates to social media accounts. In their reporting, they quote Doug Ericksen, the communications director for President Trump’s transition team at the EPA, saying that he “expects the communications ban to be lifted by the end of this week.”The EPA’s communications department provided Hearst Television with the following statement: “The EPA fully intends to continue to provide information to the public. A fresh look at public affairs and communications processes is common practice for any new Administration, and a short pause in activities allows for this assessment.”[SOURCES: Associated Press, Washington Post, Politico, Boston Globe, Huffington Post]
  • On January 23, Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service was directed not to release “any public-facing documents,” including, but not limited to, “news releases, photos, fact sheets, news feeds, and social media content,” according to an email obtained by the Associated Press.On January 24, the USDA disavowed the order and stated that scientific publications released through peer-reviewed professional journalist from ARS should not be blocked.”This internal email was released without Departmental direction, and prior to Departmental guidance being issued,” ARS spokesman Christopher Bentley said, in a statement provided to the Associated Press.”ARS will be providing updated direction to its staff. As the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s chief scientific in-house research agency, ARS values and is committed to maintaining the free flow of information between our scientists and the American public as we strive to find solutions to agricultural problems affecting America.” Further, “information on our projects, people and locations” would remain available on the ARS website. [SOURCES: AP, Washington Post, Reuters, Politico, AP, Buzzfeed]
  • The Department of the Interior and Department of Energy have both halted or limited social media use. [SOURCESWashington Post, GreenWire]
  • The Department of Transportation told employees not to publish news releases or social media until they receive new guidance from the Trump administration. [SOURCE: Politico]
  • The National Institutes of Health were “to hold on publishing new rules or guidance in the Federal Register or other public forums and discussing them with public officials until the Administration has had an opportunity to review them,” per Institutes spokeswoman Renate Myles. [SOURCE: Politico]
  • On January 30, Senator Marco Rubio said that when his staff tried to obtain details about President Trump’s executive order on immigration, they were informed by State Department workers that the administration had ordered the agency not to share information with Congress.

    “They’re aren’t a lot of answers as of today. In fact, my staff was told the State Department, as of today, was ordered not to talk to Congress about this issue,” Rubio told reporters. “I don’t know the reason. Maybe, perhaps, they’re still kind of working through how this is going to apply, so perhaps they don’t want to give us information that is wrong.”

    When asked why, Rubio said “That is what we were told. You’d have to confirm that separately. We reached out to State Department, and we were told the directive was that they were not to share any information today. Again, I suppose its because they aren’t clear what to tell us yet, but that cannot be a permanent position.”

    The Trump administration and State Department spokesman denied the directive [SOURCE: Politico, Talking Points Memo]

The White House has not confirmed these actions. White House press secretary Sean Spicer was asked about them in a press briefing but did not confirm.

We call on the Trump administration to disclose the memoranda that have led to these changes to the public, explain their rationale, and reverse the measures. We have requested  documents and correspondence under the Freedom of Information Act from several agencies and will update this page if we receive them.