The Mississippi State Department of Health removed freelance journalists from its media distribution lists in 2021, restricting their ability to attend press conferences and receive other announcements.
Kamesha Laurry, a legal fellow for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker that the group, which provides pro bono representation and other legal resources for journalists, became aware of the change in policy after a freelance journalist called the RCFP legal hotline in September 2021. According to Laurry, the journalist said the policy was limiting her access to the health department’s press conferences. RCFP is a member of the Tracker’s advisory board.
According to RCFP, the policy change bans freelance journalists from live press conferences, including about the ongoing pandemic, and other timely announcements. RCFP attorneys sent the State Department of Health a letter on June 24, 2022, objecting to the policy, saying it was revised without explanation and in violation of the First Amendment.
“No public justification was given for the change,” RCFP wrote. “Instead, members of the MSDH communications team told freelance journalists that they could, instead, stream press conference recordings via MSDH’s website hours after the live event occurs.”
The RCFP letter also argues that the policy is unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment, which provides equal protection and due process.
“Indeed, freelance journalists are members of the press just like their ‘affiliated media’ peers and should not be placed at a disadvantage simply because they are not working full-time for a single media outlet or newsroom,” RCFP wrote.
The Mississippi State Department of Health did not respond to a request for comment.