U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

New York congressman lifts press ban for public town hall meetings

Incident Details

Courtesy: Liz Schevtchuk Armstrong

Placard displayed at an Aug. 22 town hall event hosted by U.S. Rep. Mike Lawler, R-NY.

— Courtesy: Liz Schevtchuk Armstrong
August 12, 2023

A New York congressman for several months in 2023 enforced a policy of restricting press access at his town hall events to journalists who live in his district, prohibiting reporters in attendance from recording the events, using cameras and asking questions.

U.S. Rep. Mike Lawler, R-N.Y., ultimately reversed the policy on Jan. 5, 2024, announcing that his office will now grant access to all credentialed media and allow cameras. Lawler said he will also take reporters’ questions after each event.

Lawler’s press crackdown was first reported after an Aug. 22, 2023, meeting when his staff only allowed a reporter for The Highland Current to enter a Carmel, New York, town hall with restrictions on her newsgathering methods.

“On entering, with my ticket, I had my camera around my neck. Lawler’s staff members said that I could not take photos or otherwise record the event and had to immediately either put the camera back in my car or surrender it until the town hall ended,” Liz Schevtchuk Armstrong told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker.

Armstrong added: “When I explained that I was with the press, the staff answered that the town hall was not open to news media coverage. I expressed my surprise and questioned how a House member and his staff, all paid by taxpayers, could forbid press coverage of a public forum held in a public, local government building. The staff appeared confused and a long discussion ensued between me and one of Rep. Lawler’s senior staff members.”

Armstrong said she was finally able to gain entry to the town hall using a ticket issued to one of Lawler’s constituents.

Similar press restrictions were imposed throughout the fall of 2023. Lawler’s staff, for instance, barred journalists from attending a Sept. 25 town hall event in East Fishkill, New York, Kayla Guo of The New York Times reported. Guo interviewed town hall attendees outside the venue.

Lawler also barred the press from a Nov. 19 town hall event at Rockland Community College in Suffern, New York, where attendees were threatened with expulsion if they recorded the event, reported David McKay Wilson of The Journal News. Wilson gained access to the sold-out town hall by obtaining a friend’s ticket to the event. He published an account and a photo of the event in The Journal News.

The Rockland Daily reported that its request for a press pass to the Nov. 19 event was denied, but that one of its photographers was allowed to attend the town hall in his capacity as a private citizen and a constituent of Lawler’s, and was permitted to take photos with his cellphone.

Lawler’s Dec. 17 town hall at a high school in Thornwood, New York, was also closed to the press, according to the Eventbrite page for the event. A Journal News photographer and a News 12 Westchester camera crew were barred from entering the venue.

The Journal News’ Wilson said he was allowed to attend that event as a constituent but not as a member of the press — he reported that attendees were again threatened with expulsion if they recorded Lawler’s exchanges or took photos.

“This was an event of a member of Congress, in his official capacity as member of Congress,” Wilson told the Tracker. “It’s the first time I was barred from a public congressional event.”

The New York Times and News 12 did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Lawler, in his Jan. 5 statement, said his office had imposed the policy to make the town halls “as hospitable and welcoming as possible. … The goal was to prevent these town halls from being hijacked by out-of-district political grandstanders desperately searching for a viral video clip, and instead geared towards hearing directly from constituents with serious questions or concerns.”

Lawler’s statement added: “Upon reflection, while well-intentioned, these rules could have been explained and implemented in a better way.”

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker catalogues press freedom violations in the United States. Email tips to [email protected].