Rules regarding media conduct passed by city officials in Winter Garden, Florida, on Feb. 9, 2023 — called unconstitutional by press freedom advocates — were cited in a June letter sanctioning the editor-in-chief of a local publication.
The new rules were part of a resolution that stipulates that journalists are not to ask officials questions before or after city commission meetings or during the meetings’ public comment periods. The rules also direct members of the press to contact the city-designated public information officer with requests for comment or interviews, though no such appointee exists, according to the First Amendment Foundation.
The Orlando Sentinel reported that City Manager Jon Williams proposed the resolution in direct response to VoxPopuli Editor-in-Chief Norine Dworkin’s use of the public comment portion of commission meetings to ask questions. Williams, in response to emailed questions from the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, declined to state the motivation behind the resolution.
Dworkin told the Tracker that she is often one of the few members of the media present at the City Commission meetings, and that she asks questions during the public comment period only when her calls and emails go unanswered.
“When I want to make a point or when I haven’t gotten a response, I would go and use the public comment forum and ask publicly because it’s harder to dodge the question in front of your constituents,” Dworkin said.
After the media rules were passed, Dworkin said she kept asking questions without issue. “I continued to just do my job and do all the things I normally do,” Dworkin said, “until I asked about the neo-Nazis.”
It was during the City Commission meeting on June 22 that Dworkin asked Mayor John Rees whether he condemned the neo-Nazis who distributed antisemitic pamphlets in neighborhoods in Winter Garden and the nearby town of Oakland. The following day, Dworkin received an official notice of violation, which stated that she would be banned from the meetings if she continued to defy the resolution.
Williams defended the resolution in an email to the Tracker, stating that the guidelines were intended to ensure the meetings are “courteous and orderly” and that citizens can raise concerns for consideration by the commission.
“City Commission meetings are not an open public forum (like a public sidewalk), but are a limited public forum,” Williams wrote. “The public comment portion of the meetings are not offered as a platform to address matters that are not city business.”
The First Amendment Foundation sent a letter to Rees and Williams on July 25 challenging the constitutionality of the resolution and encouraging them to rework the resolution to comply with state and federal law.
“Denying [journalists] access to officials during public comment periods or forbidding them from asking them questions when the officials enter or leave meetings can only be seen as a violation of the journalist’s First Amendment rights,” wrote Executive Director Bobby Block.
Williams told the Tracker that city management had a “productive” meeting with representatives from the First Amendment Foundation on Aug. 3 to discuss the organization’s concerns. The city is now awaiting the foundation’s specific proposed revisions to the resolution.
Dworkin said that though this issue started with her, it’s not really about her or VoxPopuli.
“This is really about the First Amendment, it’s about press freedom and it’s about having access to the elected officials and being able to ask them questions and to hold them accountable,” Dworkin said. “That’s all this has ever been about.”