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In ‘Historic Win,’ Federal Judge Orders Trump Admin to Provide Sign Language Interpreters at Coronavirus Briefings


WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 30: U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a news conference in the James Brady Briefing Room of the White House July 30, 2020 in Washington, DC. Earlier in the day Trump suggested in a tweet that November’s general election should be postponed, citing his unsubstantiated assertions of widespread mail-in voter fraud amid the coronavirus pandemic.

A U.S. district judge in the District of Columbia ruled on Wednesday that the Trump Administration must use American Sign Language interpreters at all coronavirus press conferences and briefings.

Plaintiffs, the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) and five deaf Americans, sued the White House in August, contending that the administration’s refusal to provide a sign language interpreter at briefings was a violation of their First Amendment rights. Without a sign interpreter, argued the plaintiffs, they are prevented from accessing communications provided by their elected representatives – a violation of their rights under the U.S. Constitution.

About the need for the lawsuit, NAD Chief Executive Howard A. Rosenblum said to the New York Times, “Deaf and hard-of-hearing people are affected by the pandemic, just like everyone else, but we’re not getting the same access to information, resources, and updates as others.”

“Accurate captioning helps anyone and everyone. Appropriately assigned interpreters at press briefings avoids possible misunderstandings,” Rosenblum continued.

On September 9, United States District Judge James E. Boasberg ruled in a preliminary order that “Closed captioning and transcripts may constitute a reasonable accommodation under some circumstances, but not here.”

Judge Boasberg then stayed the September 9th order while plaintiffs and the Trump administration worked out the specifics regarding how and what should be done to accomplish sign interpretation during briefings. The majority of those matters were agreed to in a Joint Proposed Injunction Order, but Judge Boasberg issued an order Wednesday clearing up any remaining details.

Specifically, Judge Boasberg ordered that the Trump administration must include a qualified ASL interpreter in the White House Communications Agency (WHCA) feed for all coronavirus briefings; this can be done either by having the interpreter in frame, physically near the speaker, or by having and interpreter off-site and using the picture-in-picture feature.

Judge Boasberg also clarified which briefings fall under his order and require sign interpretation. The order applies to briefings addressing coronavirus pandemic that are conducted by the President, Vice President, or White House Press Secretary, as well as any notices publicly disseminated by the White House Press Office or the White House Office of the Press Secretary in advance of briefings.  It also applies to any briefings that take place on the grounds of the White House or any federal agency, and anything that is captured by the WHCA.

Just to be totally clear, the judge also included the following language:

For the avoidance of doubt, information concerning the coronavirus pandemic includes but is not limited to information related to the spread or containment of the virus; updates regarding vaccinations or treatments; government action taken in response to the pandemic; and health updates related to the pandemic.

The ruling is set to go into effect on October 1, 2020.

[image via Alex Wong/Getty Images]

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Elura is a columnist and trial analyst for Law & Crime. Elura is also a former civil prosecutor for NYC's Administration for Children's Services, the CEO of Lawyer Up, and the author of How To Talk To Your Lawyer and the Legalese-to-English series. Follow Elura on Twitter @elurananos