Stop the Press
Attorney General Illegally Bars Reporter from Attending Press Conference
On June 28, Attorney General Rob McKenna sent a press release inviting media outlets across Washington State to cover his press conference. The state's top lawyer, McKenna would be speaking about the US Supreme Court's decision to uphold most of the Affordable Care Act; McKenna was one of 26 state attorneys general who sued to block the Affordable Care Act. But when Stranger reporter David "Goldy" Goldstein arrived for the press conference at McKenna's downtown Seattle offices, a guard was waiting for him.
Cameramen, radio people, and reporters were granted free entry. But Goldy was prevented from walking in.
"They are physically blocking me from entering," Goldy told me by phone, seven minutes before the 11:30 a.m. event was scheduled to begin. A spokesman for McKenna, Dan Sytman, had told Goldy a few minutes before that Goldy wasn't a journalist and then blocked him from the door. A McKenna staffer had also grabbed Goldy by the shoulders and turned him away.
If McKenna was trying to restore faith in his competence as a lawyer—by attempting to put a positive spin on his legal defeat a few hours before—he was sabotaging himself by making yet another legal miscalculation.
The Stranger's editorial staff and its publisher, Tim Keck, agreed that Goldy should proceed into the press conference anyway. State statute requires that press conferences like the one McKenna had called be open to all members of the press. So The Stranger also contacted one of its lawyers, Jessica Goldman, a litigator at Summit Law Group. She affirmed that state laws as well as the First Amendment guaranteed Goldy's access.
Then Goldy, who was still being blocked at the door, called again. In a conversation easily audible to the guard and McKenna's staff, I assured him that we would bail him out of jail, feed his dog, and pay his parking tickets if he was arrested trying to walk in.
Meanwhile, Stranger attorney Goldman wrote in an e-mail to McKenna's office that barring Goldy was "a clear violation of The Stranger's and Mr. Goldstein's First Amendment rights and the guarantees of Washington's Open Public Meetings Act."
Finally, Sytman capitulated. "Actually he's in the conference," Sytman wrote back. That is to say, McKenna's office only allowed Goldy to enter after he walked past a staffer who tried to block him, after a lawyer intervened on his behalf, and after he made arrangements to get arrested outside a room full of TV cameras. So even though Goldy finally got inside, those barriers shouldn't have been there in the first place.
So the matter wasn't settled. McKenna's office has barred Goldy from attending press events before, Goldman noted in a rejoinder, adding, "I would like to have your assurance, in writing, that this will not happen again. Otherwise, we will go to Court and obtain a restraining order prohibiting Mr. McKenna from violating these critical rights."
Goldman got a call back, not from PR flack Sytman, but from McKenna's own lawyer, Washington State solicitor general Maureen Hart.
"I provided assurances to you that Mr. Goldstein will be allowed access to press conferences... on the same basis as other members of the media," Hart wrote to The Stranger's lawyer the next day. Hart also agreed that McKenna's office would invite The Stranger in writing to all future press conferences and Goldy would not be "cautioned." In an odd note, Hart added that she respects The Stranger's "legal view" about attending press events, but she added that the office is "not indicating agreement."
McKenna's staff claimed that Goldy was disruptive in a past press conference and other journalists had complained. However, nobody at the attorney general's office named the journalists who allegedly complained or provided any example of Goldy being disruptive (Goldy is generally quieter than other reporters in press conferences, in our experience).
Lacking any legal reason to bar Goldy, it seems that McKenna was simply being intimidating, trying to restrict access to a reporter he dislikes. This is a problem when a government official is acting in his or her public capacity. And it's an issue not just for newspapers like The Stranger, but particularly for bloggers and small opinionated media outlets that can't afford a legal defense. "Allowing public officials to determine who is a journalist and who is not a journalist opens it up to viewpoint discrimination," says ACLU of Washington deputy director Jennifer Shaw, "because a government official can decide who they want to have in the room, and that is not the way that our First Amendment works."
I called the Attorney General's Office to ask why they barred Goldy in the first place—and on what grounds. Reached by phone, Sytman said, "I am not interested," and then hung up on me.
Let's pause here to appreciate the irony in all of this: Part of the reason McKenna is so angry at Goldy is that Goldy has in the past called McKenna a crappy lawyer. McKenna himself seems determined to prove Goldy right: Having just lost a lawsuit before the US Supreme Court, McKenna picked a fight with Goldy (and The Stranger) that ended with McKenna's own lawyer being forced to promise they will never bar Goldy from attending a press event again.
McKenna is currently the state's top law-enforcement official. McKenna is running to become the state's governor.
Say what you will about Goldy, his partisan allegiances, his criticisms of McKenna: Goldy is a working journalist. As such, he's entitled to enter official functions held by public officials in public facilities. And Goldy knows that. The Stranger's lawyer knows that. But Rob McKenna doesn't know that.
Because Rob McKenna is a crappy lawyer.