MIGOP restricting access to Capitol lawn for rally raises 1st Amendment issues, experts say

Capitol Commission vice chair would vote to deny permits if attempted again

By: - August 31, 2022 3:33 am

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin campaigns with Republican nominee for Michigan governor Tudor Dixon in Lansing on Aug. 27, 2022. (Andrew Roth | Michigan Advance)

The Michigan Republican Party held a rally on the Capitol lawn Saturday — but not everyone was welcome at the festivities on public land. That’s raised serious concerns with First Amendment lawyers, journalists and the Michigan State Capitol Commission.

After a lengthy and occasionally boisterous nominating convention at the Lansing Center, to which the Advance was denied access, the Michigan GOP then held a celebratory “Red Wave Party” on the Capitol lawn. The rally featured GOP nominees including Tudor Dixon for governor, Matt DePerno for attorney general and Kristina Karamo for secretary of state, along with Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin.

Despite the Capitol lawn being a taxpayer-funded public space, the party also required general admission tickets, as well as media credentials for the rally and wrote in an email that the policy would be “strictly enforced.” Advance reporters were able to enter the Capitol lawn with general admission tickets, although Michigan GOP staff at one point tried to remove a reporter from the press area.  The Advance reporter maintained that she had the right to cover the event.

Michigan Republican Party rally in Lansing on Aug. 27, 2022. | Andrew Roth

Michigan State Police (MSP) spokesperson Shanon Banner said in an email Tuesday that “there was a request for our state properties security officers to remove some individuals from the Capitol Lawn on Saturday.

“Because the individuals were not violating any laws, we took no enforcement action. I will note that the event organizers did contract with a private security company for the event,” Banner said.

John Truscott is the vice chair of the Michigan State Capitol Commission, the bipartisan panel tasked with maintaining and restoring the Michigan State Capitol building and grounds. Truscott, a longtime spokesman for GOP former Gov. John Engler, told the Advance in a phone call Monday that the attempt to limit attendance in the public area is “inappropriate.”

“My vote would be, if anybody tries to do that, we would not give them a permit again after that,” said Truscott, CEO of the Lansing-based PR firm Truscott Rossman. “ … The Capitol lawn is public property, and it is inappropriate to restrict any entrance or anybody from going on that public lawn.”

John Truscott

Truscott noted that if there are tents rented out on the lawn, attendance inside the tents can be restricted — “but the grounds itself, you cannot do that.”

Michigan GOP spokesperson Gus Portela did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

Two Michigan attorneys specializing in First Amendment cases questioned the legality of the Michigan GOP’s attempt to limit access on the Capitol lawn.

Herschel Fink, a Detroit-based media lawyer who represents the Detroit Free Press and others, said it seems as though the party was “violating the First Amendment.”

“It certainly sounds like they were violating citizens’ rights of access if it took place in a public place. I don’t see how they could limit the attendance just to a select number of people,” Fink said.

Chuck Barbieri is a Lansing-based attorney with Foster Swift Collins & Smith PC.

“My general view is that the insistence on press credentials for admission into a public space such as the Capitol grounds for a political party event would be inconsistent with the First Amendment, which does in my view protect some aspects of news-gathering activities,” Barbieri told the Advance.

Attorney General Dana Nessel’s office declined to comment for the story.

Lisa McGraw, Michigan Press Association (MPA) public affairs manager, denounced the party’s effort to restrict access to the area.

“It’s a public space. It’s the people’s house,” McGraw said. “If you’re having an event on the Capitol lawn, you’re accepting that it’s a public space. So I’m not sure what they were trying to do by saying people couldn’t be there.

Michigan Republican Party media credentials email

“We just have to keep being diligent and watching every time what they’re doing. … If it’s a public space, they can’t continue to do that.”

McGraw, who worked for Senate Republicans while Dan DeGrow was Senate majority leader from 1999 to 2002, said it “doesn’t make sense” to her for the GOP “to shut out any media.”

“I mean, you want to be in the media. If you’re running for office, you want press,” she said.

This isn’t the first time that journalists have faced roadblocks in covering events at the Capitol.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Michigan sued after reporters weren’t let into the state Capitol during the controversial Right to Work vote in December 2012.

When asked about the Michigan GOP’s policy on Saturday, ACLU of Michigan spokesperson Dana Chicklas sent a statement on Tuesday: “Freedom of the press is foundational to a thriving democracy. Requiring media to be credentialed in a public space creates an unnecessary barrier that negatively impacts journalists and the public.”

There’s also a broader trend of political candidates trying to restrict news outlets at events or shutting them out completely.

After U.S. Rep. Andy Levin (D-Bloomfield Twp.) lost his Aug. 2 primary to U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens (D-Waterford Twp.), reporters were initially allowed into his party. However, Levin did not take questions from the press and his campaign kicked journalists out of the theater after he gave his concession speech.

Michigan Republican Party tweet

In other states like Ohio and Florida, Republicans also have laid down highly restrictive rules for media coverage in the 2022 cycle, seemingly to avoid bad press from outlets they believe are “biased” against the GOP, per analysis in the Columbia Journalism Review. Former President Donald Trump was an early adopter, barring certain outlets from covering his campaign rallies starting in the 2016 cycle.

Since most reporters followed the Michigan Republican Party’s requirement to secure media credentials before attending the Saturday rally, the Advance asked McGraw if she is concerned whether other groups might follow suit and attempt the same tactic on the Capitol lawn.

“They didn’t get away with it,” McGraw said. “That’s the bottom line. The police said no.”

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Laina G. Stebbins
Laina G. Stebbins

Laina G. Stebbins covers the environment, Native issues and criminal justice for the Advance. A lifelong Michigander, she is a graduate of Michigan State University’s School of Journalism, where she served as Founding Editor of The Tab Michigan State and as a reporter for the Capital News Service. When Laina is not writing or spending time with her cats, she loves art and design, listening to music, playing piano, enjoying good food and being out in nature (especially Up North).

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