Potential Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke scheduled a visit to Milwaukee Area Technical College on Friday before heading to the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. But while reporters were invited to attend the Milwaukee event, O’Rouke is shutting out most of the media in Madison.
The campus newspaper The Daily Cardinal was cleared to attend, according to the paper’s editor. The independent student paper the Badger Herald also had access to the event, and the paper's editor said other media attended as well.
But campus communications officials had earlier said the first hour of the event was off-limits for the media.
According to campus officials, the request to bar media from the first hour of the event at the Education Building on Bascom Hill came from O’Rourke’s team.
“We have heard from Beto’s team that he is OK with reporters coming into the room after the formal portion of the event,” university spokeswoman Meredith McGlone said in an email.
Excluding the media from an appearance at a public institution by a public figure doesn’t sit well with the state’s leading open records advocate.
“It’s a public building, an event that’s public, he cannot selectively exclude the media,” said Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council. “It’s a violation of the First Amendment. And I would say if Beto O’Rourke can’t behave any better than this, he should stay the hell out of Wisconsin.”
According to Milwaukee Area Technical College spokeswoman Ginny Knadt, O’Rourke spoke with a tight group of about 16 students, a handful of administrators and “a bunch of media” at the campus’ main building in downtown Milwaukee.
“They weren’t really participating but they were allowed to be in there to watch it,” she said.
She said the size of the student contingent was small by design. Students were invited by the college’s Student Life Office to conform with O’Rourke’s requests.
“He wanted a small group,” she said.
But O’Rourke, who plans to announce his presidential intentions by the end of the month, invited the media to attend.
In contrast, O’Rourke reportedly barred the media from his appearance on the UW-Madison campus, scheduled for 5 p.m.
McGlone said the media would be escorted in by campus communications officials at about 6 p.m., after he was done speaking and answering questions.
The Cap Times did not assign a reporter to cover the event.
“The talk and Q&A are closed to media and to anyone outside the UW campus community,” she said.
However, the Daily Cardinal’s editor said a reporter from the paper was allowed to attend the entire event, which was organized by the Political Science Student Association.
“The reporter directly contacted the student organization who coordinated it and they permitted him to take notes and write a story, but no photo or video,” the Cardinal’s editor, Sammy Gibbons, wrote in a Twitter message. “Also just saw a post there’s going to be a livestream, so makes not allowing press even more interesting.”
Ben Stevens and Gracie Prewitt, listed on the PSSA’s website as founders of the group, didn’t respond to emails asking if the group questioned O’Rourke’s exclusion of media at the event.
O’Rourke spokesman Chris Evans didn’t respond to a Twitter message asking for an explanation for barring the media.
O'Rourke's appearance, as well as a campaign stop by Democratic U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota scheduled for Saturday in Eau Claire, show that Democrats consider Wisconsin very much in play. Trump won the state in 2016, the first Republican to win the state since Ronald Reagan.
But O'Rourke's barring of the media at the UW event sets an unfortunate tone for his potential campaign, Lueders said.
It would be different if the event were a private event held at a private venue, he said.
“It’s just not fair,” he said. “Why should the media, of all people, be treated as second-class citizens? Is he trying to model Donald Trump?”
This story has been altered to reflect that other media beside the Daily Cardinal were granted access to the event.