Turner v. U.S. Agency for Global Media

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA GRANT TURNER, et al., Plaintiffs, Civil Action No. 20-2885 (BAH) v. Chief Judge Beryl A. Howell U.S. AGENCY FOR GLOBAL MEDIA, et al., Defendants. MEMORANDUM OPINION In 1942, the first transmission made by Voice of America (“VOA”), the official, publicly funded news outlet of the U.S. government abroad, promised foreign VOA listeners: “The news may be good or bad; we shall tell you the truth.” VOA News, VOA’s First Broadcasts: “The News May Be Good or Bad, We Shall Tell You the Truth,” YOUTUBE, at 0:35–0:39 (Mar. 8, 2012), https://youtu.be/-k3bkvDDfgU. Consistent with that promise, VOA, the best-known of several U.S.–funded international broadcasting outlets, has “w[o]n the attention and respect of listeners,” 22 U.S.C. § 6202(c), by “serv[ing] as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news” that is “accurate, objective, and comprehensive,” id. § 6202(c)(1); see also id. § 6202(b)(1). VOA, joined over time by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (“RFE/RL”), Radio Free Asia, the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks, through their efforts to “present a balanced and comprehensive projection of significant American thought and institutions” that “represent[s] America, not any single segment of American society,” id. § 6202(c)(2); see also id. § 6202(b)(2), have exported the cardinal American values of free speech, freedom of the press, and open debate to the dark corners of the world where independent, objective coverage of current events is otherwise unavailable. 1 The United States’ commitment to this cultural export has contributed to the downfall of oppressive regimes around the world, from Nazi Germany to the Soviet Union. Central to the success of this critical foreign policy work, however, is the premise that, in contrast to the state- run propaganda that dominates media in the countries where VOA and its sister networks broadcast, U.S.–funded international broadcasting outlets combat disinformation and deception with facts, told through an American lens of democratic values. Thus, “to transform” these outlets “into house organs for the United States Government” would be “inimical to [their] fundamental mission.” Ralis v. RFE/RL, Inc., 770 F.2d 1121, 1125 (D.C. Cir. 1985). Instead, to provide a model of democratic debate and deliberation informed by the contributions of a free press, VOA and its sister networks must “present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively,” alongside “responsible discussions and opinion on these policies.” 22 U.S.C. § 6202(c)(3); see also id. § 6202(b)(3). In light of this obligation, these outlets are not intended to promote uncritically the political views and aspirations of a single U.S. official, even if that official is the U.S. President. To the contrary, their mission of pursuing and producing objective journalism applies just as forcefully to their coverage of the U.S. government and its officials. Defendant Michael Pack, the current Chief Executive Office (“CEO”) of the United States Agency for Global Media (“USAGM”), the agency that oversees U.S.–funded international broadcasting, has allegedly taken a series of steps since his June 4, 2020 confirmation that undermine this mission, ...

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