Judge James Boasberg has decided to set forth a temporary relief requiring the provision of American Sign Language [ASL] interpretation services at all COVID-19 press briefings in response to the National Association of the Deaf’s [NAD] lawsuit against the White House. Judge Boasberg’s decision is an indicator that the Trump administration may have violated federal law.
In Judge Boasberg’s 25-page opinion, he pointed out that leaders throughout the world, including all governors as well some mayors of cities varying in size across the United States, do provide in-frame interpreters during their live COVID-19 video briefings, which establishes a precedent, while the White House does not (pg. 3). The plaintiffs argued that the lack of in-frame interpreters at the White House’s COVID-19 briefings severely delays the accessibility of the information community members need to protect themselves and their families.
Judge Boasberg agreed in-frame interpreters are necessary. First, he cited NAD Chief Executive Officer Howard Rosenblum’s declaration: “[M]any deaf and hard of hearing persons know virtually no English” (pg. 4) and for many others, “English is, at best, a second language” (pg. 4). Second, he also recognized the complete lack of or the delays and inaccuracies of closed captioning on both social media channels and television as additional barriers (which makes ASL access all the more critical), referring to the declarations of Corey Axelrod and Graham Forsey (pg. 5). As such, in-frame interpreters are a reasonable accommodation.
With this preliminary injunction order, it is clear the scope of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act does apply to the Office of the President of the United States: “The [Section 504] regulations apply to the White House Office and the Office of the Vice President, among others. See 3 C.F.R. [sign] 102.103…”(pg. 10). Judge Boasberg implies that the federal laws and regulations on reasonable accommodations does not apply to the media: “…the Court again imposes no mandate on the media” (pg. 25). In short, the responsibility of arranging in-frame interpreters falls on the White House.
Chris Haulmark shared his opinion with Deaf Vee Journal that the Federal Communications Commission [FCC] is responsible for all media outlets and he believes the FCC can be legally compelled to instruct media outlets to include in-frame ASL interpreters in their filmed broadcasts when available.
Judge Boasberg determined “there is little debate” that the Deaf community suffers irreparable harm if denied access to critical information about the pandemic (pg. 21). Judge Boasberg also stated although the plaintiffs have met their “burden to obtain some form of injunctive relief,” the White House still demonstrates a need for time in advance to work on the logistics involved in making in-frame ASL interpretation possible. What now? The District Court will conduct a hearing to discuss details on how to implement this order in a way that works for everyone.
Some want to know if the provision of in-frame ASL interpreters will be permanent for all White House press briefings. The short answer is a “no,” as the lawsuit was only for their press briefings relevant to COVID-19. The long answer is also “no,” and this depends on whether there is another successful lawsuit that argues Section 504 regulations applies to the White House for all press briefings.