Governor Janet Mills’ administration banned news outlets from two advocacy groups from participating in weekly COVID-19 briefings, which led one of them to threaten legal action and sparked a debate on the role of the state in making this judgment.
The live stream briefings led by Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention director Nirav Shah have been part of the pandemic response for more than a year, allowing reporters to have an open forum with Shah and d other officials, often including the Democratic governor.
Regular briefings stopped in the summer as cases dwindled, but resumed in early September, with the delta variant resulting in high case rates nationwide and in Maine. At that time, news outlets run by the progressive Maine People’s Alliance and the conservative Maine Policy Institute were excluded from briefings widely watched by the rest of the state media.
Maine CDC spokesman Robert Long said their exclusion was because they were “advocacy journalists,” according to emails provided to the Bangor Daily News. But media advocates said the recent ruling could be challenged under the First Amendment, saying the state shouldn’t look at outlets in this way.
“At first glance, it limits and blocks public discourse,” said Lynda Clancy, founding director of the Penobscot Bay Pilot and president of the Maine Press Association, who said she was speaking for herself and not for the group. defense of the newspapers that the BDN belongs to.
Both groups pushed back the state’s decision. Lauren McCauley, editor-in-chief of Maine People’s Alliance-affiliated Beacon, said Long told her days after learning of the change on Aug. 25 that the decision had been made to limit the length of briefings. The Maine Policy Institute made its dispute with the state public on Twitter ahead of a briefing on Wednesday.
Maine Department of Health and Human Services commissioner Jeanne Lambrew defended the decision at the briefing, saying the department answered questions through other means, such as email, and that briefings should be reserved to “accredited media”.
Long said the state had determined it was in the public interest to limit briefings, noting that they often lasted more than an hour. He compared news outlets like the BDN to those affiliated with advocacy groups that “solicit donations to promote political and ideological causes.”
The Maine People’s Alliance and the Maine Policy Institute are both nonprofit organizations that play different roles in state policy. The Progressive Group is a major force in Democratic electoral politics here, organizing for candidates and causes as well as lobbying on key issues.
The Conservative Group is a 501 (c) 3 nonprofit that is primarily banned from explicit political activity, publishing research in political areas of interest to Republicans, including school choice and relaxation of professional licensing regulations. He doesn’t endorse candidates or explicitly tell people how to vote, Maine Policy Institute spokesman Jacob Posik noted.
The First Amendment is supposed to prevent the government from censoring the media. The state’s decision raises due process and First Amendment issues, said Sigmund Schutz, a media lawyer who represents the Portland Press Herald. He argued that the CDC did not have a clear standard for outlets that could attend and discriminated on the basis of views.
“In other words, why not let political or advocacy organizations ask questions? ” he said.
The stated desire of the Mills administration to continue to answer questions from points of sale by other means sets it apart from a 2013 move of Governor Paul LePage’s office to publish general non-commentaries to the Press Herald and affiliated newspapers after an investigation of a senior state official. LePage is Mills’ Republican opponent in next year’s election.
But the Maine Wire, the news arm of the Maine Policy Institute, barely gets answers to questions from the administration, Posik said. He did not seek to attend the briefings until this summer after hiring a trade journalist who attended a briefing but was not called because she did not indicate that she wanted to ask a question. The group is considering legal options, Posik said.
A reporter from Beacon frequently attended the spring briefings before they ended in early summer. McCauley, the site’s publisher, said the move “was detrimental to the public interest and was particularly damaging to people who are too often already left out of the conversation.”
Clancy said the state had other avenues if it wished to shorten briefings, including limiting the total number of questions asked. She said this could set a precedent for the Mills administration by limiting attendance at other briefings.
“It looks like the hammer is falling hard without much explanation,” she said.