The Seven Words You Can’t Say at the CDC…?

Academic Freedom, Censorship, Intellectual Freedom Issues

By: Robert Sarwark

Is there a censorship crisis currently happening at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention? The answer depends on whom you ask.

On Friday, December 15, the Washington Post reported that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), located in Atlanta, had declared at a meeting with policy analysts the previous day that it would prohibit a list of seven terms. Among them: “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based” and “science-based.” The terms, the Post reported, were not to be included by employees in any official documents supporting the CDC’s 2019 budget.

The move has stoked fears on social media, and beyond that, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) — the CDC’s parent federal agency — is partaking in ideologically biased suppression of thorough, non-partisan scientific inquiry.

Within days, as reported by the Atlanta Journal Constitution, the CDC rebutted this claim. The Center’s director, Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald, stated in an edited CDC Facebook post on Sunday, December 17,

“I want to assure you there are no banned words at CDC. We will continue to talk about all our important public health programs.

You may be understandably concerned about recent media reports alleging that CDC is banned from using certain words in budget documents. I want to assure you that CDC remains committed to our public health mission as a science- and evidence-based institution.”

So who’s to believe?

The New York Times reported on Saturday, December 16, details revealing the ambiguity of the situation:

“The Times confirmed some details of the report with several officials, although a few suggested that the proposal was not so much a ban on words but recommendations to avoid some language to ease the path toward budget approval by Republicans.”

Design by Lori Vaughan

Regardless of the level of formality of the “recommendations,” various activist groups quickly mobilized.

One concerned individual, Lori Vaughan, began a T-shirt-based crowdfunding campaign in support of the CDC Foundation, an independent non-profit that supports the CDC itself. As of the time of writing, $3,050 has been raised in $20 increments.

The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) collaborated with artist Robin Bell in Washington, D.C., to project the seven supposedly banned words onto the facade of Trump International Hotel. The HRC has also filed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for any official documents relating to the Department of Health and Human Services’ language-censorship policies.

Under any presidential administration, certain partisan policies will emerge. Whether the whistle-blowers are overreacting to sensationalist news, or the CDC or HHS are indeed self-censoring to pander to right-wing values, is yet to be fully revealed.


Robert SarwarkRobert M. Sarwark is a librarian at the Art Institute of Atlanta. He is originally from Chicago and enjoys dogs, pizza, and writing bios in the third person. Find him on Twitter @RobSarwark.

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