FT. LAUDERDALE (CN) - When the candidates for Florida governor gathered to debate this week, one of the challengers was relegated to the sidelines. A day earlier, the Libertarian in the race failed to persuade a federal judge that he belonged on stage alongside Gov. Rick Scott and his Democratic opponent, Charlie Crist.
Adrian Wyllie challenged what he deemed his unfair exclusion from a televised debate hosted by Broward College, a public community college. The Oct. 8 federal lawsuit raised constitutional claims against the college, including denial of equal protection and prior restraint on protected speech.
Wyllie also brought state-law claims against the debate's organizers, Leadership Florida Statewide Community Foundation and Florida Press Association.
U.S. District Judge James Cohn denied Wyllie's request for an injunction Tuesday afternoon, shortly before the Oct. 15 debate, finding he was unlikely to succeed on his claims.
Wyllie said he was led to believe he would need to meet a polling threshold of 12 percent to be included in the debate. But the organizers countered that they had announced the 15-percent polling threshold as a participation condition more than a year ago, in an August 2013 press release. The 15-percent threshold was also mentioned in the publication of the debate criteria in November 2013, according to Cohn's order.
The judge found there was no evidence the organizers had led Wyllie to believe he could participate if he polled at just 12 percent. Furthermore, the four debates they had organized in the last two election cycles all required a 15-percent threshold, according to the ruling.
Broward College, the host and sponsor of the event, had no control over which candidates appeared in the event, the court noted.
"Even if Broward College's involvement in the debate gives rise to state action, plaintiffs' constitutional claims are not substantially likely to succeed on the merits," Cohn wrote. "Given the limits on candidate participation, the Oct. 15 debate at Broward College is properly considered a 'nonpublic forum.'"
The organizers had legitimate reasons to require candidates to show a minimum level of public support, and did not exclude Wyllie based on the content of his political message, the ruling adds.
Cohn said a hearing was not necessary because the essential facts were undisputed and the written record was sufficient to support his conclusion.
After the ruling, Wyllie released a statement through his attorney, Luke Lirot: "For too long, the Republican-Democrat 'duopoly' has controlled the conversation, and they have used their power to silence the competition. Their attempts to exclude me from the debates is just another example. The people of Florida are demanding a third choice, and this decision is an injustice to those millions of Florida voters crying out for fairness and for their voice to be heard."
The latest poll released Tuesday by CNN showed the race tied with 44 percent for Democrat Charlie Crist and incumbent Republican Rick Scott, with Wyllie at 9 percent.
The debate Wednesday night in Davie, Fla. took gubernatorial race tensions to a new level when Crist and Scott argued over the Democrat's use of an electric fan. Crist told the audience that Scott refused to come out on stage for the debate, claiming that Crist had violated the ban against electronic devices by keeping a small fan inside his lectern. After the panelists debated the issue for a few minutes, the governor eventually walked on stage and his opponent kept the fan.