Court orders White House to provide sign language interpreters at coronavirus briefings

In his ruling on Wednesday, US District Judge James Boasberg issued an order for a preliminary injunction, but stayed it until “the specifics [of sign language interpretation] can be resolved”.

The news comes after the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) sued the White House in August for failing to provide American Sign Language (ASL) interpretation at President Trump’s coronavirus briefings.

In a statement last month, NAD CEO Howard A. Rosenblum said: “Deaf and hard of hearing Americans deserve the same access to information from the White House and the President that everyone else gets.

“Such information must be provided not only through captioning but also in American Sign Language, especially for government announcements regarding health pandemics.”

Ian Hoffman, from legal firm Arnold & Porter who filed the lawsuit, added that while all 50 states’ governors have provided ASL interpreters for their conferences on the coronavirus, “the White House has never done so”.

“The law prohibits this exclusion of deaf people from the President’s public briefings.  We are proud to stand with our clients and all deaf and hard of hearing Americans who rely on interpreters and want equal access to the President’s communications during this public health crisis.”

Courthouse News Service reports that in response to the lawsuit, Justice Department attorney David Michael Morrell described the request as “truly remarkable” and called for it to be rejected.

“The briefings themselves are a purely discretionary act of the president in the White House,” he said.

However, in his Memorandum Opinion, Judge Boasberg concluded that the NAD was entitled to “some form of preliminary relief” as a result of an ASL interpreter not being provided.

“Indeed, at no point have Defendants [White House] said that providing an ASL interpreter to guarantee that access would be too burdensome.

“The Court also agrees with Plaintiffs [NAD] that it is in the public interest for them to receive up-to-date information during the pandemic […] particularly given the rapidly evolving science on the nature of the virus’s spread,” he said.

The judge went on to add that another hearing will take place “to determine the optimal approach”, which is due to take place on 17 September at midday.

Responding to the ruling, Rosenblum said: “The National Association of the Deaf is pleased with the court’s decision, and that deaf and hard of hearing Americans across the country will soon gain access to the same information about the pandemic that their government is providing to everyone else.”

Hoffman added that the White House “shut hundreds of thousands of deaf people out” of its briefings on the coronavirus.

“That was illegal, and the court’s decision begins to right that wrong.  Deaf Americans deserve to know what is being said at the White House’s coronavirus briefings, and now they will,” he said.

The White House and Justice Department are yet to comment on the order.

Update – 18.09.20: In a statement to this website following the hearing on Thursday, NAD CEO Howard A. Rosenblum said: “The Federal court has asked the parties to confer on a joint proposed order and report back on September 22nd, and we will be sure to update you at that time.”

Featured Image: White House/Flickr.

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