Appeals court sides with Wisconsin governor on press access
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A federal appeals court ruled Friday that Democratic Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers can exclude members of a conservative think tank from attending press briefings and keep them off his email list sent to other reporters, upholding a ruling from a lower court.
The MacIver Institute for Public Policy filed the lawsuit in 2019 alleging that Evers violated its staffers’ constitutional rights to free speech, freedom of the press and equal access.
But U.S. District Judge James Peterson in March 2020 rejected their arguments, saying MacIver can still report on what Evers does without being invited to his press briefings or being on his email distribution list. The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday upheld that decision.
“We find that the Governor’s media-access criteria are indeed reasonable and not an effort to suppress MacIver’s expression because of its viewpoint,” the three-judge appeals court panel said.
The governor is under no obligation to grant access to every media outlet to every press conference, the court said.
“We cannot fathom the chaos that might ensue if every gubernatorial press event had to be open to any ‘qualified’ journalist with only the most narrowly drawn restrictions on who might be excluded,” the court said.
All three of the judges who sided with Evers were appointed to the court by Republican presidents.
MacIver’s attorney, Dan Suhr, said the group was evaluating its options for appeal.
“The journalists at MacIver have the same constitutional rights as every other journalist,” he said.
Evers’ spokeswoman Britt Cudaback had no immediate comment.
MacIver had argued that Evers was excluding its staffers, and violating their free speech rights, because they are conservatives. Evers said they were excluded because they are not principally a news gathering operation and they are not neutral.
There was no evidence that the governor’s office manipulated its criteria to exclude conservative media, the court said.
MacIver covers legislative meetings and other events at the Capitol as well as some Evers news conferences. But they sued after being excluded from a media briefing Evers gave for reporters on his state budget proposal in 2019. Evers wasn’t present, but members of his administration provided information to reporters on embargo ahead of his budget speech to the Legislature that evening.
The appeals court noted that a limited number of reporters were allowed into the event. Reporters from The Associated Press, along with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and Wisconsin State Journal, were among those present for that briefing.
“Because this was a small-scale event, hundreds of other journalists and media personnel were also not invited to attend,” the appeals court said. It noted that a former Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter who had moved on to a nonpartisan think tank was also denied admission because he was no longer affiliated with a news organization.
The appeals court judges who heard the case were Daniel Manion, appointed by former President Ronald Reagan, Ilana Rovner, appointed by former President George H.W. Bush, and Michael Scudder, appointed by former President Donald Trump.
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