MADISON, Wis. (CN) — A conservative think tank whose reporters have been barred from press events hosted by Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers failed Tuesday to secure an injunction from a federal judge.
Calling itself “the free market voice for Wisconsin,” the John K. MacIver Institute for Public Policy sued Evers in August, alleging that he and his staff targeted it and excluded MacIver News Service reporters from media events while extending invitations to liberal-leaning outlets in violation of MacIver reporters’ free-speech and equal-protection rights.
MacIver specifically claimed two of its journalists were turned away from a February 2019 invitation-only press briefing because they were not on the RSVP list, after the journalists had unsuccessfully tried to get on the governor’s media advisory email list. After weeks of getting no answers regarding their denial, the journalists learned secondhand that MacIver did not make the cut under the governor’s office’s new rules for granting press access to news organizations.
Evers’ office asserted that the MacIver Institute is primarily a think tank that does not distinguish between the advocacy focus of its think tank work and the corresponding reporting of its affiliated news service.
U.S. District Judge James Peterson, an Obama appointee, ruled Tuesday that MacIver does not technically qualify as a news organization under the governor’s guidelines, and that there is no evidence the governor was targeting right wing press such as MacIver for blacklisting.
“Evers has reasonably concluded that MacIver is not a bona fide news organization,” the 20-page opinion states.
“MacIver publicly brands itself as a think tank committed to ideological principles,” it continues. “It engages in policy-driven political advocacy, including advocating for specific initiatives and policy approaches. It has a ‘news’ tab on its website, but it does not maintain a news-gathering organization separate from its overall ideological mission.”
While admitting that Evers may very well prefer friendlier press coverage from liberal outlets, Peterson maintained that “Evers’ personal or political motives are simply not material.”
“It only matters that he has reasonable, viewpoint neutral criteria for granting access to his press conferences and press briefings,” Peterson wrote, determining that the governor’s guidelines passed muster.
Peterson concluded that the think tank had not proven Evers denies press access based on journalists’ viewpoints. The judge also considered Evers’ press-access criteria “reasonably related to Evers’ asserted interests in accounting for space constraints, maximizing public access to information, and upholding journalistic standards.”
The judge also made the point that forcing Evers to grant MacIver’s reporters press access would establish bad precedent that “any citizen journalist could make the same case MacIver has made, forcing Evers to either permit unrestricted press access at every event or forgo press events altogether.”
Peterson denied MacIver an injunction and set an April 10 deadline for the think tank to show why it should not also lose at summary judgment.
Evers’ office did not return requests for comment left after business hours Tuesday.
MacIver President Brett Healy expressed disappointment in Peterson’s order Tuesday night, specifically pointing to its effects in the agitated news climate created by Covid-19.
“This week’s coronavirus briefings highlight again how MacIver News Service is being treated differently than other organizations,” Healy said, charging that “plain and simple, Judge Peterson just missed this.”
Healy maintained that “now, more than ever, it is vital that the governor stop blocking MacIver and that all news sources have fair and equal access to information and briefings.” He indicated MacIver and its attorneys are weighing their options regarding an appeal of Peterson’s order.