When state House Speaker Bill O’Brien barred two Concord Monitor reporters from a State House press briefing, many observers — including the paper’s editor — condemned the action but agreed that O’Brien did not have a Constitutional obligation to allow the reporters to attend the press conference.
Not so fast, writes attorney Stephen Gordon. In a Monitor op-ed, Gordon makes a case that O’Brien’s action may very well have interfered with the paper’s First Amendment right to cover the news.
First, the press conference was held on state property by a state official addressing a matter of legislative concern. There is thus state action.
Second, the Monitor was banned because O’Brien took personal offense to a Monitor cartoon…. By picking and choosing who can attend a public press conference in the speaker’s office, O’Brien is allowed to curry favor and choose friendly reporters, more willing to shape his message in a light more favorable to the speaker, a not so subtle form of propaganda.
Third, the banning of a reporter because of political views can have a chilling effect on the press gathering function, as news and access are the currency of the profession and the press may become less willing to criticize if there is a fear that a vibrant dialogue will result in banishment.
Northeastern University journalism professor Dan Kennedy agrees with Gordon. Writing in Huffington Post, Kennedy points to a court ruling that followed a similar episode in Hawaii when Mayor Frank Farsi banned a Honolulu Star-Bulletin reporter from City Hall news conferences.
The Star-Bulletin went to court. And in the 1974 case of Borreca v. Fasi, U.S. District Court Judge Samuel King ruled that Fasi had to open his news conferences to all reporters. King wrote:
[When there is] an attempt to use the powers of governmental office to intimidate or to discipline the press or one of its members because of what appears in print, a compelling governmental interest that cannot be served by less restrictive means must be shown for such use to meet Constitutional standards. No compelling governmental interest has been shown or even claimed here.
Judge King made it clear that no member of the press was entitled to special privileges. If the mayor wanted to grant interviews to some reporters but not others, that was his prerogative. If he refused to answer a reporter’s questions, that was within his rights as well. But he could not discriminate against some members of the press when scheduling a formal, official event such as a news conference.