The conservative MacIver News Service sued Gov. Tony Evers in August for barring its reporters from a press briefing and for purposefully withholding press notifications from its journalists, and now the group suing on MacIver's behalf says Evers' own words are contradicting his lawyer's arguments.
According to the Liberty Justice Center, while Evers' attorneys have defended their restrictions on the MacIver reporters in court, Evers himself made statements recently on FOX11 that were contrary to those arguments.
"In the interview, Evers suggests that the MacIver journalists have as much access as other statehouse journalists and that the governor desires no restrictions on them or any other journalists," the Liberty Justice Center said in statement.
But those public statements do not match his legal team's arguments, says Liberty Justice Center attorney and MacIver counsel Daniel Suhr.
"Despite the governor's claims, his administration blocks legitimate news organizations from receiving media information and attending press briefings," Suhr said. "His lawyers argue that reporters can be barred from asking questions, removed from media lists, and even labeled as political advocates and lobbyists if the governor disagrees with them. It's time for Gov. Evers and his lawyers to get on the same page in support of the First Amendment."
Because of the interview, Suhr sent a letter to Wisconsin attorney general Josh Kaul, whose office is representing the governor in court, highlighting what Suhr said were inconsistencies between the governor's public statements and his legal defense, and encouraging the governor's team to adopt into practice the openness that Evers conveyed in the interview.
"They're getting all the information that any other media gets so we feel confident we're meeting our expectation," Suhr quoted Evers as saying in the FOX11 interview.
He also quoted Evers as saying: "And when I have press conferences, I see them in the room so I'm guessing they have as much access as they need to cover. ... I'm guessing from time to time they don't agree with me and that's fine, I don't care about that, but I think we're in a good place. People can come to our press conference, chat with me as long as they want."
Suhr also said Evers was asked if the governor was barring any political ideal that maybe doesn't go along with his, and he said that Evers responded: "No, absolutely not."
Unfortunately, Suhr wrote to Kaul, the DOJ's litigating position on behalf of the governor is totally at odds with Evers' statements.
First, Suhr wrote, it isn't true that MacIver journalists are getting all the information that any other media gets.
"The MacIver journalists have been refused access to media briefings," Suhr wrote, citing a Feb. 28, 2019, budget briefing that MacIver was not invited to but had learned about from journalists who were invited. Because they weren't invited, the MacIver journalists were not admitted to the event, MacIver contends.
What's more, Suhr continued, MacIver journalists have been refused on repeated requests to join the media advisory list. Suhr said it was also not true that MacIver journalists have as much access as they need to cover issues.
"Because they have been refused access to media briefings and inclusion on the media advisory list, they do not get opportunities to hear information or ask questions," Suhr wrote. "Your position in the case is that this sub-par access is acceptable."
Evers's contention that "(p)eople can come to our press conference, chat with me as long as they want" is likewise false, Suhr wrote.
"The governor's staff has refused to include MacIver journalists on the media advisory list which alerts reporters to the time and place of press conferences," he wrote. "MacIver cannot attend events it is purposefully not told about. Your position in the case is that this exclusion is acceptable. Moreover, your position defending (deputy chief of staff Melissa Baldauff's) use of her criteria means other reporters also cannot come to the governor's press conferences."
Suhr also took issue with Evers' claim that he was not barring any political ideal that might not go along with his briefing viewpoint.
"Clearly the MacIver journalists are not receiving equal treatment compared to the rest of the press corps," Suhr wrote. "Your position in this case is that dis-equal treatment is acceptable because of MacIver's supposed politics."
As evidence, Suhr cited the legal team's arguments that the MacIver Institute is a strong supporter of a cause and engages in political advocacy and lobbying activity.
"Incidentally, neither of these claims in your brief is true: MacIver is not registered to lobby and is barred by federal tax law from engaging in political advocacy," Suhr wrote.
Suhr urged the legal team to get on board with the governor's public statements.
"We request that your office align your position in this case with the governor's position in his interview with Fox 11," Suhr wrote. "Do what the governor said - give MacIver the same information and access as everyone else, let them do their jobs as journalists, open up the press conferences, and don't discriminate based on editorial viewpoint."
Just settle, Suhr urged.
"Settle, and agree that MacIver's journalists may attend the governor's press events and briefings and receive the governor's media advisories," he wrote. "Settle, and adopt the Wisconsin state Legislature's straightforward and inclusive criteria for credentialing."
The case, MacIver Institute v. Evers, was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin. MacIver says the Evers administration's actions violate the journalists' constitutional right to free speech, freedom of the press, and equal access and that the First Amendment prohibits government from discriminating against certain news outlets based on their editorial viewpoint.
"Gov. Evers should not block MacIver journalists from public press briefings and limit their access to government activities," Brett Healy, president of the MacIver Institute, said when the lawsuit was filed. "Our reporters have the same constitutional rights as every other journalist in Wisconsin, and we have a duty to keep the public informed about what's happening in state government."
Healy had said he had hoped the Evers administration would do the right thing before filing the lawsuit.
"We now have no option but to sue," he said. "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."
Richard Moore is the author of the forthcoming "Storyfinding: From the Journey to the Story" and can be reached at richardmoorebooks.com.
The Northwoods River News | Walker Communications, LLC 232 S. Courtney Street, Rhinelander, WI 54501 | Office (715) 365-6397 | Fax (715) 365-6361
Corporate billing office: The Lakeland Times / Lakeland Printing Inc. | P.O. Box 790, Minocqua, WI 54548 | (715) 356-5236 | Fax (715) 358-2121 Members of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association, Wisconsin Community Papers, Rhinelander Area Chamber of Commerce, Minocqua Area Chamber of Commerce