A federal appeals court ruled Monday that Maricopa County must issue a temporary press pass to reporter Jordan Conradson unless county officials can justify a denial that has nothing to do with the content of his articles or his political viewpoints.
The order issued Dec. 5 by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in favor of Conradson does not preclude Maricopa County from declining to grant press credentials to Conradson, provided the county does so “consistent with Conradson’s First Amendment rights.”
But the court’s 16-page Order makes clear the county has an uphill battle in defending its denial of Conradson’s application for a press pass, which is the subject of a federal lawsuit.
“The evidence supports, at least at this preliminary stage of the review, the conclusion that a predominant reason for the County denying Conradson a press pass was the viewpoint expressed in his writings,” the Order notes. “It is the County’s politically-tinged assessment of Conradson’s prior reporting that appears to have led it to deny him a press pass. That type of viewpoint-based discrimination is exactly what the First Amendment protects against.”
Further, the Order notes that permitting Conradson to attend Maricopa County press briefings pending resolution on the lawsuit serves the public interest by ensuring the County’s administration of press-pass credentials complies with the First Amendment. And there is no prejudice to the county, the court noted, “because no one would be obliged to speak with him.”
Court records show Maricopa County established a press credentials requirement in order to address what officials characterized as “logistical and security” concerns when the demand grew for access to county elections-related press conferences and other events.
Conradson applied for a county press pass in September but was turned down. The denial notice cited the fact he and the Gateway Pundit “do not avoid real or perceived conflicts of interest” and “are not free of associations that would compromise journalistic integrity or damage credibility.”
Further, the County contended Conradson is “not a bona fide correspondent of repute” within the media industry and that he had reported false information about elections in Maricopa County and Arizona.
In response, Conradson and TGP Communications, the company which publishes the Gateway Pundit, sued Maricopa County last month in U.S. District Court, alleging county officials engaged in violations of the First Amendment. The lawsuit also contends the County unconstitutionally applied its lengthy list of press pass prerequisites by denying Conradson “for his political viewpoint.”
The lawsuit included a request for a temporary restraining order requiring Conradson be given access to the county’s press events. A federal judge in Phoenix denied the requested temporary order, finding that the County had “a legitimate interest” in favoring some media representatives over others.
On Nov. 30, Conradson and TGP Communications filed an emergency motion for the temporary order with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which agreed to expedite the motion on its merits.
Less than a week later, the Court granted the motion, in part finding that Conradson and his publisher “established that they are likely to suffer irreparable harm in the absence of preliminary relief and are likely to succeed on the merits of their as-applied First Amendment challenge to the denial of a press pass,” the Order states.
Although the First Amendment does not provide a right of free and unconditional access to all government properties or event, the Order noted that content-based restrictions to access “are presumptively unconstitutional and may be justified only if the government proves that they are narrowly tailored to serve compelling state interests.”
The evidence put before the federal judge, including sworn testimony from Maricopa County employees, “only underscores that the press-pass denial, as applied to Conradson, was not viewpoint neutral; the County’s evidence indeed highlights its reliance on Conradson’s political views,” the Order adds.
The Ninth Circuit also noted that a restriction on speech is unconstitutional if it is “an effort to suppress expression merely because public officials oppose the speaker’s view.”
Maricopa County provided Conradson his press pass hours after the court order was issued.