This article was written by Molly Beck and originally appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Aug 7, 2019.
MADISON – A conservative group alleges Democratic Gov. Tony Evers has violated its writers’ rights to free speech and equal access by not notifying them about the governor’s public appearances or inviting them to media events.
The Madison-based John K. MacIver Institute for Public Policy, which has a news service that employs conservative reporters that cover Wisconsin state government and politics, is suing Evers in federal court to gain such access.
The lawsuit alleges MacIver writers are being treated differently from journalists and liberal-leaning writers and groups because Evers does not favor the conservative writers’ coverage.
MacIver News Service covers legislative hearings, floor sessions, news conferences and state government issues from a conservative viewpoint.
“By targeting the MacIver News Service for intentional and selective exclusion from this briefing, the Governor’s office made it substantially harder for these journalists to report the news in a timely, thorough manner,” the lawsuit alleges.
The group says access to media advisories is “critical” because it provides its writers a chance to ask Evers questions and cover his administration thoroughly. Its writers have attended a number of news conferences held by Evers since he took office in January.
“Our administration provides many opportunities for both reporters and the public to attend open events with the governor,” Evers’ spokeswoman Melissa Baldauff said in a statement. “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 …”
Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council and editor of The Progressive magazine, said in an email Wednesday to council members that the allegations “are deeply troubling.”
“I cannot say whether the conduct described is a violation of law, but it certainly is not in keeping with the state’s proud tradition of open government,” he wrote. “If Tony Evers has what it takes to lead state government, he ought to be able to withstand the inclusion and presence of reporters from a conservative news outlet.”
Lueders, who joined The Progressive in 2015, and former Progressive political editor Ruth Conniff said they weren’t aware of being excluded from media advisories or budget briefings under Republican Gov. Scott Walker but couldn’t say for sure.
Evers’ staff have refused MacIver’s requests to be included on media advisories about Evers’ public events and barred them from a February state budget briefing open to Capitol reporters, according to the lawsuit.
Nonpartisan reporters from public radio, television news stations, news services and print newspapers were invited to the briefing.
The group alleges media advisories are being sent from the governor’s office to liberal writers and groups such as The Progressive, Democratic Party of Wisconsin staff and liberal advocacy group One Wisconsin Now while leaving MacIver writers off the mailing list. The lawsuit does not allege the group is not being sent news releases.
“A free and vibrant press is critical to democracy, and to ensuring the people of Wisconsin are informed and engaged on what’s happening in their state,” Brett Healy, president of the MacIver Institute, said in a statement. “We hope to quickly resolve this issue, not just so that our journalists can go about their important work but to ensure no future governor engages in the same unconstitutional practices.”
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