MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A conservative think tank has filed a federal lawsuit against Democratic Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers, alleging he violated the First Amendment rights of staff members who were denied access to a press briefing and kept off an advisory list sent to other reporters.
The MacIver Institute for Public Policy filed the lawsuit Tuesday in Madison alleging that Evers violated its staffers' constitutional rights to free speech, freedom of the press and equal access.
Evers' spokeswoman, Melissa Baldauff, said in a statement that Evers believed strongly in a "fair and unbiased press corps" and is committed to openness and transparency in state government.
"Our administration provides many opportunities for both reporters and the public to attend open events with the governor," Baldauff said, while not directly addressing the allegations made in the complaint.
The lawsuit alleges that since Evers became governor in January, he has refused to extend invitations to press events to reporters for the conservative group's MacIver News Service. It also says MacIver does not receive press releases giving notice of news conferences that are sent to other news outlets.
The lawsuit alleges that keeping MacIver off the email advisory lists "constitutes viewpoint discrimination based on the MacIver Institute's editorial stances," which it says is a violation of its free speech rights.
First Amendment experts said MacIver appeared to have a strong case.
"It's practically a slam dunk," said Howard Schweber, a law school and political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
The law is clear that there has to be a very compelling reason to deny press access, and singling out a particular outlet because you disagree with their viewpoint is not allowed, Schweber said. He drew a parallel with President Donald Trump attempting to bar a CNN reporter from the White House. Trump ultimately relented.
MacIver is asking the court to issue an injunction ordering Evers to stop barring MacIver from equal access to information on the same basis as other reporters and lists announcing such events.
Robert Dreschel, a journalism professor at UW-Madison and an expert on media law, said it appears Evers wasn't following any standards or guidance when MacIver was denied access.
"That's very troublesome," he said. "They have to be able to give some kind of reasons beyond just saying 'Not you.' Otherwise you do raise legitimate First Amendment questions."
Evers will have to make a convincing argument as to why MacIver was excluded, or grant them the same access as others.
"It just seems like this shouldn't be that big of a deal," Dreschel said. "I'm not sure why it had to reach this point."
Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, called the lawsuit's allegations "deeply troubling."
"It certainly is not in keeping with the state's proud tradition of open government," Lueders said. "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."
The lawsuit cites an Evers administration budget briefing in February in which two MacIver reporters were denied access but 26 other reporters, including from The Associated Press, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and Wisconsin State Journal, were allowed in. Evers wasn't present, but members of his administration provided information to reporters on embargo ahead of his budget speech to the Legislature that evening.
Governors from both parties have held similar briefings over the years. They are typically open only to certain invited reporters, not every news outlet that covers state government or the governor.
Daniel Suhr, an attorney for MacIver, said MacIver reporters had attended budget briefings by former Republican Gov. Scott Walker.
MacIver reporters have attended other news conferences held by Evers and members of his administration. For example, a MacIver reporter was at the July budget bill signing held in the governor's conference room and asked Evers a question that the governor answered.
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