Florida Governor Ron DeSantis not only broke decades of precedent on Thursday by blocking all news outlets except Fox News from covering the signing of a voting bill. He may also have violated the US Constitution.
This is the opinion of the experts on the First Amendment who told the Tampa Bay Times it is illegal for DeSantis to hand-select media that may cover a public proceeding.
“The law leaves no doubt about the downside of banning certain media while allowing only friendly media,” said Pamela Marsh, executive director of the First Amendment Foundation, an organization that advocates for open government and represents media outlets, including the Tampa Bay Times and the Miami herald. “It is a discrimination of point of view and content.”
Decades of precedents in federal courts have asserted that elected officials cannot prevent certain news outlets from reporting on public events simply because they don’t like the coverage.
In Louisiana in the 1980s, a local mayor tried to exclude journalists from a certain newspaper from major press conferences. The newspaper took legal action. A federal court called the mayor’s actions “the essence of First Amendment censorship so abhorred by the Founding Fathers,” and the newspaper won.
In 2007, an Ohio federal judge ruled against the mayor of Toledo, who had stopped briefing a local radio station about the mayor’s press conferences. The mayor’s office also blocked one of the station’s reporters from introducing himself. The court said the mayor was trying to “manage information by manipulating who comes to hear what needs to be said and therefore who reports it.” “The journalist had to have access.
DeSantis traveled to West Palm Beach on Thursday to sign a controversial bill that made postal voting in Florida more difficult. During his three years in office, DeSantis has frequently held similar signing ceremonies, and they are open to journalists. This time, journalists and TV crews who showed up to cover the signing were turned down by governor’s staff.
The signing, however, continued live Fox and friends, the morning show of the conservative network, for a segment of 7 minutes and 30 seconds. DeSantis later said he gave Fox News an “exclusive” term, a term media types and politicians use to give a story or interview to a single outlet or reporter.
Because signing the bill was a “public proceeding,” DeSantis should not have been able to limit the media that might cover it, said Clay Calvert, professor of law at the University of Florida and director of the University of Florida. School’s First Amendment Project.
People who don’t have a cable subscription or watch this network wouldn’t have seen it.
“Unless you watch Fox, you will be denied access to information,” Calvert said. “It is troubling regardless of the problems with the First Amendment.”
In addition to DeSantis, several elected officials joined him in West Palm Beach for the signing of the bill, including Lieutenant Governor Jeanette Núñez and the sponsors of the bill, Representative Blaise Ingoglia and Senator Dennis Baxley. Members of a local fan club of former President Donald Trump were also in attendance.
DeSantis only defended rental Fox and friends in the room because it was broadcast on national television. His office did not respond to requests for comment on First Amendment concerns.
“We made a wonderful bill signing for this great election bill,” DeSantis said. “It was live on national television. We were happy to give them exclusivity on this. It’s broadcast to millions of people. “
Fox and friends has an average of 1.1 million viewers nationwide. Florida’s voting age population is nearly 17 million.
Fox said he did not ask the DeSantis office for special treatment. In a statement to Tampa Bay Times, the network said, “FOX and his friends did not request or mandate that the May 6 event and Gov. Ron DeSantis interview be exclusive to FOX News Media entities. “
The network later clarified that its producers did not know DeSantis was going to sign the bill on camera. He was booked Thursday for “an interview and not to sign a bill live”.
This is not the first time that DeSantis administration has come up against news agencies over access. When the coronavirus first arrived, the DeSantis administration waited 24 hours to notify the public of a known case in Florida. Throughout the pandemic, DeSantis’s office withheld data and reports about the outbreak from journalists, only releasing the information after news outlets sued.
Thursday’s press conference also highlights how DeSantis has relied on Fox News to amplify its message and grow its national brand. He’s a frequent guest on the show’s prime time programs, whose hosts often praise the Republican governor.
And the network in turn has welcomed DeSantis, one of the GOP’s most popular figures, as often as he is available. Hours after a nationwide firestorm over DeSantis’ appearance on Fox and friends, he sat down for another interview on the network, this time with Sean Hannity.
Edward Birk, a Jacksonville-based First Amendment lawyer, said elected officials can grant exclusive deals with certain news outlets, but they cannot exclude media from a public event.
“Whether or not he breaks the First Amendment, which he can,” Birk said, “this is bad government.”
Times / Herald reporter Lawrence Mower contributed to this report.