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It's Still Censorship: On the CDC Banned Word List

In choosing to even suggest censoring certain terms, the federal government only continues its long tradition of wielding the narrative to its pleasure, with dangerous consequences for the rest of us.

Recent media reports cited an alleged directive by the US administration to prohibit the use of seven words in documents related to the 2019 budget at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a prominent US health agency. However, follow-up reporting and statements from HHS officials refuted the claim, referring to initial media reports as a “mischaracterization”. Unnamed officials have also allegedly asserted that the words were an internal guidance meant to aid in securing 2019 budget approval from Congress.

Confusing and complex as the news may be however, many remain alarmed regarding the “banned word” list, which includes the words: “entitlement,” “science-based,” “fetus,” “transgender” “vulnerable,” “diversity,” and “evidence-based”.

Indeed the case does remain that officials from the Federal Executive at the very least suggested that certain words be avoided in the critical budget process, a move that could have policy implications down the road. Following news reports, analysis actually shows that the 2018 budget documents already show a significant drop in the seven words “banned words”.

In truth this perhaps subtle control of the narrative has always been an integral tradition in the country. The United States and its sub-national governments and local agents have a long history in employing censorship or censorship-like policies as staunch defenders and active perpetrators of the oppression of marginalized peoples.

For example, direct action was taken to suppress abolitionist pamphlets and literature by local postmasters, an action the federal Postmaster General ruled in 1835 he would not prevent nor condemn. Later on the legal the system would then be weaponized to persecute those who voiced views unsupported by the government, such as radical leftists and communists through the Smith Act and Smith Act Trials of 1949.

And the Trump administration has shown itself to be actively committed to continuing this legacy. Even within its own government, the administration has attempted other types of censorship-like policies as well. Earlier this year scientists receiving grants from the Department of Energy reported being asked to remove mentions of “climate change” from their work. Later, analyses found that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had removed dozens of climate-related resources, although the EPA claims they have simply been archived.


And with regards to the “banned word” list in particular, this “new” policy suggestion is just the most recent iteration in an uninterrupted history of suppressing marginalized people and their movements including trans people and trans liberation and reproductive justice.

Only a few months after the inauguration, the administration re-instituted the Global Gag Rule also known as the Mexico City Policy that prevents federal funding not only to all organizations that provide abortions, but to those that educate or inform on abortion as well, a policy with several potentially devastating consequences especially in areas heavily served by these organizations. And although this is a common policy by many US presidents, this current version was expanded to include global health funding sources as well, totaling $9 billion.

The so-called Gag Rule has also been introduced as proposed state-level legislation including in Kentucky earlier this year.

Queer and trans materials as well have a long history of censorship or censorship-like suppression. As recently as 2017, multiple US states continue to have so-called “no promo homo” laws that prohibit or limit the discussion of LGBTQ+ issues in schools. While federal Equality Act prohibiting this discrimination against LGBTQ+ folks has yet to be passed.

Truly, this policy suggestion is simply one in a long tradition of suppression and censorship, particularly against marginalized peoples. And while it might be said that we can only speculate the motives or causes behind this particular action, as Gabrielle Bellot reminds us, language is a means of control. And our language as marginalized peoples and movements have long been policed.

Undoubtedly, this policy suggestion can be seen as means of control, particularly of the mainstream narrative. And this control of the narrative is powerful.

It would, for example, allow members of Congress, and later on the academics and actors of the medical-industrial complex whose budgets they support, to continue to push the line that policy can’t be changed because there’s “not enough” data, because they deliberately would have not referred to any. Because it was suggested these words not be referred to or used.


This aforementioned consequence in fact being something already seen and known, with the current issue at hand highly reminiscent of previous efforts to censor or silence public health agencies/officials such as under the Reagan administration in parallel with the 1980’s HIV/AIDS humanitarian crisis in the US.

And exactly as they’ve done in the past, the executive controlling the story now is to control what is understood to be the truth. It controls who does get access and to what. It controls who does not.

The way narratives are wielded and told can dictate policy, power, and as in the AIDS crisis, who lives or dies. So in choosing to even suggest censoring certain terms, the federal government only continues its long tradition of wielding the narrative to its pleasure, with dangerous consequences for the rest of us, implicated in its policies. And in choosing these seven words in particular, they reveal exactly who that is.





Holly is a teacher, a student, and a writer (sometimes). She loves discovering decolonized narratives in media.

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