Steven Walters
The State of Politics

Should U.S. Supreme Court Rule On Evers News Conferences?

WILL and Walker say Evers must invite conservative group to media events. Are they right?

By - Oct 25th, 2021 01:06 pm
Gov. Tony Evers

Gov. Tony Evers. Photo by Emily Hamer / Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

The U.S. Supreme Court has a long list of important issues to rule on this term: Texas and Mississippi anti-abortion laws, 2nd Amendment gun rights, religious liberty, disability discrimination and national security. So don’t be surprised if the nine justices can’t find any time to decide who Democratic Gov. Tony Evers must invite to his news conferences.

After federal judges twice ruled against it, the conservative law firm Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL) filed a petition with the U.S. Supreme Court telling those justices that lower courts interpreted the U.S. Constitution incorrectly.

Governors, state government cabinet secretaries, legislators, mayors, county executives, city council members and law enforcement agencies give reporters information in many ways: news conferences in which they make announcements and take questions on any subject, news conferences in which they make announcements and take no questions, and briefings on complex issues like the $87.5-billion two-year state budget that give reporters time to accurately analyze that budget before it is made public.

Officials also make themselves available in one-on-one interviews to media organizations they favor. And they email blizzards of press releases providing information without making themselves available to reporters.

Elected officials hold news conferences everywhere and anywhere they and their aides think will help them politically. Evers, who is up for re-election next year, held news conferences in Milwaukee, Oneida and Manitowoc over four days recently, for example.

Like governors before him, Evers and his administration pick and choose who they invite to news conferences. When reporters for the conservative MacIver Institute weren’t invited to the briefing that previewed the first Evers budget in 2019, and other newsmaking events, the Institute sued in federal court.

Although aides to former Republican Gov. Scott Walker also handpicked who they invited to news conferences, Walker joined WILL’s petition seeking U.S. Supreme Court review. The Evers Administration’s practice amounts to illegal censorship, Walker and WILL insisted.

Their logic: “Those events which have long been opened for press activity — press conferences, press briefings, and the like — are, by their nature, generally closed to the public and thus, [lower courts’ rulings], permit maximum governmental censorship at the precise time when one might express free press rights to be at their zenith.”

Federal judges disagreed, ruling that governors are allowed to hold events with some media organizations but not others. Judge Ilana Rovner, writing for the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, said, “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.”

Rovner added: “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 was the first woman appointed to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals. But Rovner has never been a reporter up against a deadline with an angry editor asking, “Why weren’t you at that news conference?”

All elected officials, and appointed cabinet secretaries and local government officials, hold positions of public trust. Part of that trust is the obligation to explain to those who elect them, pay their salaries and fund their programs, what they are doing and why.

The Evers Administration, and future governors, should make all media organizations that regularly cover the Capitol — no matter it’s left or right biases — aware of news conferences. Yes, there is a capacity limit in the ornate Governor’s Conference Room, traditional site of Capitol news conferences. But news organizations, when told of upcoming news conferences, should be advised of those capacity limits.

So, if they want to send reporters, news organizations must immediately respond, telling aides to the governor who from their organization will attend. If capacity limits mean a MacIver Institute reporter physically can’t come to the Governor’s Conference Room, she or he can watch it live on WisconsinEye or a livestream provided by the Evers Administration.

Yes, the Covid pandemic changed all the rules for attending news conferences. But Evers Administration notices of news conferences now include warnings that Covid safety restrictions will be enforced.

Rovner warned that “chaos that would ensue” if all news organizations who regularly cover the Capitol must be invited to news conferences. But one judge’s perceived chaos is a journalist’s First Amendment right.

Steven Walters started covering the Capitol in 1988. Contact him at stevenscotwalters@gmail.com

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One thought on “The State of Politics: Should U.S. Supreme Court Rule On Evers News Conferences?”

  1. GodzillakingMKE says:

    Maciver is a propaganda outlet.

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