Posik: Mainstream Outlets Mute on Mills’ Attempts to Violate First Amendment

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Staff photo by Joe Phelan Attorney General Janet Mills speaks at a press conference announcing release of the 10th Report of the Domestic Abuse Homicide Review Panel on Thursday April 24, 2014 in State House Hall of Flags in Augusta.

On October 6, 2021, The Maine Wire learned that the Maine Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Maine CDC) had decided to kick its journalist, Katherine Revello, out of its weekly COVID-19 press briefings. It also removed journalists who work for the Maine Beacon, a website operated by the Maine People’s Alliance.

After learning of the decision, The Maine Wire and Maine Policy Institute sounded the alarm on social media about the Mills administration’s unlawful attempts to limit attendance at its public health briefings to so-called “credentialed journalists.” There is no such thing as a credentialed journalist in the State of Maine.

As I noted last October, I was grateful that journalists at the Bangor Daily News were willing to stand up to this obvious abuse of power and challenge the administration’s decision. Opponents of The Maine Wire and Maine Policy Institute even stood up for us on Twitter. After the New England First Amendment Coalition got involved, it didn’t take long for the Maine CDC to reverse course and allow The Maine Wire and Beacon reporters back to its briefings.

The day following, The Maine Wire submitted Freedom of Access Act (FOAA) requests to the Governor’s Office and Maine CDC for electronic communications containing the search terms: “The Maine Wire”; “Maine Beacon”; “advocacy journalism”; “advocacy journalist”; “credentialed reporter”; “credentialed journalist”; “Maine Policy Institute”; and “Maine People’s Alliance” along with a copy of the policy used to determine certain journalists unfit to attend their press events. Thirteen months later, those FOAA requests remain unfulfilled from the governor’s office and Maine CDC.

But this week, we’ve learned that the Mills administration tried to permanently silence us after this whole fiasco occurred. Scott Ogden, who makes nearly $140,000 per year as communications director for Governor Mills, sent a letter to the Maine Press Association on October 13, 2021 – one week after the incident – asking the association to explore establishing a system whereby journalists would be vetted and given credentials in order to gain access to state-held news briefings.

Unfortunately, we were never made aware of these communications until now. More concerning, however, is that no single member of the Maine Press Association wrote an article about the Mills administration’s blatant attempt to silence certain journalists in violation of the First Amendment.

Read the letter from the Maine Press Association in response to Ogden below:

After getting caught red-handed trying to kick out journalists who represented news organizations that were willing to challenge, rather than parrot, the administration’s COVID-19 policies, the Mills administration then asked the statewide press association to do it for them.

They sought to have the association establish a system to credential reporters so that journalists at The Maine Wire and Maine Beacon would remain barred from state press events moving forward.

How is this obvious attack on the First Amendment not newsworthy? The only member outlet of the association who found this story worthy of coverage was the Bangor Daily News, who provided coverage of the CDC’s policy reversal. Not one other outlet wrote a story about what had occurred, or that the administration immediately sought for the press association to credential journalists on its behalf following the ordeal.

The Mills administration has no regard for the First Amendment or Maine’s public records law. Had our now more than one-year-old FOAA request been fulfilled, we would have already seen Ogden’s letter to the press association from October 13, 2021 and reported on it. Instead, we learn about it a year later when an employee of a member outlet of the press association gets upset that we said the mainstream press in Maine did nothing meaningful to stand up to Mills’ abuse of power.

This concerned member of the media shared private emails between themselves and Maine CDC communications director, Robert Long, relaying their concerns at the time about the decision to boot certain journalists from the briefings.

(Editor’s note: This media employee subsequently reached out to dispute The Maine Wire’s characterization of the email exchange with Long. Although the email was never published anywhere and has never been made available to the public, this individual insists that because an email to a government employee is considered a public record, the exchange with Long was not private. Agree to disagree. But we would further like to clarify that this employee is not, in fact, disgruntled.)

Unfortunately, the news organization for which they work – and so many others – never felt compelled to publish news or editorial content about the Mills administration’s attempts to violate the First Amendment.

And, quite humorously, the exchange this week with that employee helped prove our point. Just one week after getting caught trying to violate the First Amendment, the administration asked the press association to violate it for them by “credentialing” employees of member outlets and leaving The Maine Wire and Maine Beacon reporters out of the mix.

Thankfully, the press association declined the Mills administration’s request. But don’t be fooled into thinking that these outlets, or the association itself, are stalwarts of the First Amendment. To them, this whole saga was never worth writing about.

Isn’t that remarkable?

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