A conservative news outlet is suing Gov. Tony Evers, claiming his Democratic administration regularly excludes its writers from the access afforded by other media outlets.
The lawsuit, filed in federal court on Tuesday, argues Evers and his communications team violated the U.S. Constitution by preventing the conservative MacIver News Service from receiving advance notice of the governor’s news conferences and barring it from attending a briefing on the state budget attended by other news outlets.
The lawsuit claims the governor’s actions violate the First Amendment’s guarantees protecting free speech and the press, and the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause.
The John K. MacIver Institute — the MacIver News Service’s parent organization — and writer Bill Osmulski are plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
In a statement, Evers spokeswoman Melissa Baldauff emphasized the administration is committed to transparency, but did not dispute the claim the administration doesn’t allow MacIver on its media lists, nor the allegation MacIver was barred from February’s state budget briefing.
“Gov. Evers is committed to openness and transparency in state government, and he believes strongly that a fair and unbiased press corps is essential to our democracy, especially now as Wisconsinites and all Americans are calling for accountability from elected officials who refuse to take action on gun safety reform, healthcare, and the hatred and violence borne of white supremacy,” Baldauff said.
Open government advocates and First Amendment experts, however, say all media should be afforded access to government officials, no matter their points of view.
“All media — liberal, conservative, moderate, extreme — are representative of the people and should be afforded the courtesy of access,” said Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council.
The law is clear that there has to be a very compelling reason to deny press access, and singling out a particular outlet because you disagree with their viewpoint is not allowed, said Howard Schweber, a law school and political science professor at UW-Madison. He drew a parallel with President Donald Trump attempting to bar a CNN reporter from the White House. Trump ultimately relented.
“It’s practically a slam dunk,” Schweber said.
Robert Dreschel, a journalism professor at UW-Madison and an expert on media law, said it appears Evers wasn’t following any standards or guidance when MacIver was denied access.
“That’s very troublesome,” he said. “They have to be able to give some kind of reasons beyond just saying ‘Not you.’ Otherwise, you do raise legitimate First Amendment questions.”
Evers will have to make a convincing argument as to why MacIver was excluded, or grant them the same access as others, Dreschel said.
“It just seems like this shouldn’t be that big of a deal,” he said. “I’m not sure why it had to reach this point.”
Specifically, the lawsuit claims the governor’s administration refuses to grant MacIver staff access to the governor’s widely distributed press list. The list alerts news outlets and lawmakers to Evers’ upcoming public events, where members of the media typically have their only chance to ask questions directly of the governor.
The lawsuit claims the administration is excluding MacIver over its viewpoint because other media outlets with left-leaning editorial stances, such as The Progressive Magazine and Devil’s Advocates Radio, have access to the press list.
MacIver claims that because its writers didn’t have access to the list and couldn’t RSVP, they were barred from attending the administration’s state budget briefing, where reporters were granted early access to the contents of Evers’ budget request.
At least one MacIver reporter was present during the governor’s budget signing and asked Evers a question.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.