MADISON – A federal judge Tuesday determined Democratic Gov. Tony Evers could keep members of a conservative think tank off his press list and out of his media briefings.
U.S. District Judge James Peterson found that Evers had established reasonable guidelines for whom he allowed into his news conferences and could keep members of the John K. MacIver Institute for Public Policy out of them.
“An Evers press conference is a non-public forum, to which Evers may restrict access using reasonable, viewpoint-neutral criteria,” Peterson wrote.
MacIver in August sued Evers arguing he had violated the think tank’s rights to free speech and equal access by not notifying it about the governor’s public appearances or inviting it to media events.
The organization, which routinely covers legislative meetings and other events in the state Capitol, argued it should be treated like other media outlets. MacIver’s writers have attended some of Evers’ news conferences but have been kept in the dark about others. It was barred from a media briefing on Evers’ budget plans last year.
But Peterson found Evers could limit who attended his press events as long as he didn’t discriminate against anyone based on their views. Evers has said he limits his press events for space reasons and so that primarily professional journalists attend them.
Peterson noted Jason Stein, a former Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter who is now the research director for the Wisconsin Policy Forum, was prevented from attending Evers’ budget briefing. That showed Evers was treating think tanks alike, Peterson wrote.
Peterson declined to issue an injunction sought by MacIver that would have required the governor to treat MacIver like media outlets.
“MacIver journalists won’t have access to press conferences and briefings, but there is nothing to stop them from continuing to publish stories about Evers and his administration,” Peterson wrote.
“But ordering Evers to grant access to MacIver journalists would establish an untenable precedent. Any citizen journalist could make the same case MacIver has made, forcing Evers to either permit unrestricted access at every event or forgo press events altogether,” Peterson wrote.
He told MacIver to submit a brief within 10 days explaining why he shouldn’t issue a final order in Evers’ favor.
Brett Healy, MacIver’s president, expressed disappointment in the decision and said the group would consider an appeal.
“This week’s coronavirus briefings highlight again how MacIver News Service is being treated differently than other organizations,” he said in a statement. “Plain and simple, Judge Peterson just missed this. Now, more than ever, it is vital that the governor stop blocking MacIver and that all news sources have fair and equal access to information and briefings”
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