Legal /

Supreme Court Declines Free Speech Case from Wisconsin Think Tank

The organization argues Governor Tony Evers violated its writers' rights by excluding them from a press conference in 2019

A Wisconsin-based free-market think tank will not have its First Amendment case heard by the Supreme Court.

In 2019, Democrat Governor Tony Evers did not allow writers from the John K. MacIver Institute for Public Policy to attend a press briefing. The MacIver Institute sued, arguing that the move amounted to a violation of its staffers’ rights to free speech, freedom of the press and equal access.

In 2020, U.S. District Judge James Peterson ruled that Evers’s actions were legal because the group could report without attending press conferences or being on his email distribution list. He also noted that the organization was not a news-gathering operation, leading to its exclusion. MacIver published news relating to legislative meetings and other events at the Capitol.

“MacIver publicly brands itself as a think tank committed to ideological principles. It engages in policy-driven political advocacy, including advocating for specific initiatives and policy approaches,” Peterson said in his ruling. “It has a ‘news’ tab on its website, but it does not maintain a news-gathering organization separate from its overall ideological mission.”

The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed the think tank’s staffers had not had their constitutional rights violated in April. The court wrote in its decision that the governor is not obligated to give access to his briefings to all media outlets.

“We find that the Governor’s media-access criteria are indeed reasonable and not an effort to suppress MacIver’s expression because of its viewpoint,” the three-judge appeals court panel said.

“MacIver had argued that Evers was excluding its staffers and violating their free speech rights because they are conservatives,” reports AP News. “Evers said they were excluded because they are not principally a newsgathering operation and they are not neutral.”

The Court rejected a review of the case without comment, which leaves the ruling of the lower court in place.

According to USA Today, “MacIver’s appeal arrived at the Supreme Court as other government entities have wrestled with how to define a reporter when the internet often blurs the line and advocacy journalism has proliferated in state capitals and Washington.”

Former Governor Scott Walker, who Evers defeated in 2018, had urged the court to review the case. He argued “that the ruling in favor of Evers allows censorship because it permits picking and choosing which reporters attend press events that have long been open to reporters but closed to the general public,” per Newsweek.

“The First Amendment exists to protect the rights of the people, not the convenience of the politicians,” the institute wrote in its appeal to the Supreme Court. “When in doubt, this court should prefer the rights of journalists to question elected officials.”

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