Panel of federal judges rules Tony Evers can keep conservative group MacIver out of events

MADISON – A federal appeals court on Friday unanimously upheld Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ decision to keep a conservative organization from attending some events.

A panel of the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago ruled Evers’ practice of keeping the John K. MacIver Institute for Public Policy out of some events, such as a briefing on his 2019 state budget, was not based on the group’s ideology. The governor is allowed to hold events with some media organizations but not others, the judges concluded.

“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,” Judge Ilana Rovner wrote for the panel.

“The Governor contends that its criteria are intended to consider limited space constraints, address security concerns, and ensure that those in attendance will maximize the public’s access to newsworthy information, and be more likely to abide by professional journalistic standards such as honoring embargoes and off-the-record communications.”

MacIver’s attorney, Daniel Suhr of the Liberty Justice Center, said the group was considering appealing the decision. 

“The journalists at MacIver have the same constitutional rights as every other journalist,” he said in a statement.

MacIver in 2019 sued Evers for being left out of media events. It argued he violated the think tank’s rights to free speech and equal access by not notifying it about the governor’s public appearances.

The organization argued it should be treated like other media outlets because it routinely covers legislative meetings and other events in the state Capitol. MacIver’s writers have attended some of Evers’ news conferences but have been kept in the dark about others and were left out of the budget briefing.

U.S. District Judge James Peterson last year ruled Evers had not discriminated against MacIver based on its views and could limit who attends his press events.

MacIver appealed, and the appeals panel unanimously sided with Peterson. The appeals judges said it was reasonable for the governor to put limits on who can attend some events. 

“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,” Rovner wrote. “And no one’s needs would be served if the government were required to allow access to everyone or no one at all.”

Joining Rovner in Friday’s decision were Judges Daniel Manion and Michael Scudder Jr.

All three judges were put on the court by Republican presidents. Rover was nominated to the court by President George H.W. Bush, Manion by President Ronald Reagan and Scudder by President Donald Trump.

Contact Patrick Marley at patrick.marley@jrn.com. Follow him on Twitter at @patrickdmarley.