U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

The Rules of Engagement

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Published On
August 31, 2022
A graph showing a snapshot of press freedom violations as documented by the Tracker so far this year.

A snapshot of press freedom violations as documented by the Tracker so far in 2022.

— U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

Friends of the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker:

Welcome back to your monthly newsletter around press freedom violations in the United States. Find archived editions here, and get this newsletter direct in your inbox by signing up here.

Way back in 2019 — precedented times, one might say — we launched a 12-month-long specialized election tracker ahead of the 2020 general election to follow federal candidates' treatment of the press. The idea was that knowing how candidates treated the press on the campaign trail might give some indication as to how they would treat the media if elected to office.

Flash forward to 2022. In his campaign ad for Florida’s 7th District congressional seat, Republican Cory Mills shows video of journalists being shot at with crowd-control munitions and boasts how his company was the manufacturer (“If the media wants to shed some real tears, I can help them out with that.”). Mills just won his primary. The Republican National Committee has already pulled out of any future presidential debates, with Republicans shunning debates in general this primary season. And a conservative group is organizing events for Republican candidates with access requirements that are openly hostile to the ethics of newsgathering.

That group, Turning Point Action, is requiring journalists to give over footage and editorial control in exchange for access. Events which include Pennsylvania’s Republican gubernatorial candidate Don Mastriano together with Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis; Ohio Republican Senate candidate J.D. Vance with Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis; and Arizona Republican Senate candidate Blake Masters Senate and Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake with, yes, Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis. Mastriano, Vance, Masters and Lake each won their respective primaries.

In his Letter from the Editor, Cleveand.com and the Plain Dealer Editor Chris Quinn called the rules of access “absurd” and lambasted candidates hiding behind Turning Point’s restrictions: “They want to take an oath to uphold the US Constitution while trampling all over one of its most important principles, the freedom of the press.”

Restricting press from non-government events, however, isn’t technically a First Amendment violation and so the Tracker doesn’t systematically document them. But we are watching — and wondering: Where do we go from here?

As I told The Washington Post when it wrote about the group’s “unusual restrictions,” it really is the public that loses.


Denial of Access in the Tracker

Our Denial of Access category does document when journalists or media organizations are refused access to government events that are traditionally open or attended by the press. We weigh whether the denial of access deprives the public of significant information, appears to be retaliatory or is done without meaningful justification. So far this year, the Tracker has documented seven incidents in this category:

  • In June, reporters in Uvalde, Texas, were removed from a Texas House committee meeting where legislators were to discuss the law enforcement response to the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in May. The fire marshal said people were intimidated by the presence of the reporters. (Also on the Tracker: Journalists covering mass shootings report harassment and threats of arrest)
  • Journalists from four news outlets sued after they were blocked from attending a school board meeting in Bettendorf, Iowa. The meeting — which was held the day after the elementary school shooting in Uvalde — was about school violence and attended by more than 300 parents. The news outlets, joined by the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, filed a lawsuit against the Bettendorf school board and other officials on Aug. 1.
  • An editor for The Center Square filed a federal lawsuit after learning that the Tennessee Judicial Conference would be closed for the first time to the public and media. In an emergency hearing, a district judge declined to order that the annual meeting — where the state’s active and retired judges meet to consider laws, draft legislation and make recommendations to the state’s general assembly — be open, but the lawsuit will continue in federal court.
  • In April, two journalists with the Occupy Democrats news arm were forcibly removed from a press conference in Miami, Florida, with the state’s governor — the aforementioned Ron DeSantis — and Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñes. One of the journalists, Executive Editor Grant Stern, was also forcibly removed from a DeSantis press conference last year. The governor’s office has barred press from covering press conferences or bill signings on at least three other occasions since March 2020.
  • Three state legislatures — Iowa, Kansas and Utah — all changed longstanding rules of access for journalists covering the senate chambers this year.

Incidents captured in the Tracker’s Denial of Access category so far this year


What’s Ahead

As a fan of sunshine, I always feel a tinge of sadness as summer months come to an end. That feeling is tempered, of course, by school supply runs that hint at a return to schedules and more personal space.

Keep the sunshine going by gifting that special journalist in your life FPF’s journalist level membership tier. Launched in celebration of the Tracker’s 5-year anniversary earlier this month, the reduced-price donation supports the work of the Tracker and has perks like digital security trainings and other exclusive events. Check it out.

I’ll see you next month.

Kirstin McCudden
Managing Editor, U.S. Press Freedom Tracker