Congressman faced criticism over press policy
More than four months after barring journalists from his “town hall” constituent forums, Rep. Mike Lawler, whose U.S. House district includes Philipstown, last week abruptly changed course.
Lawler, a Republican who took office in January 2023, explained in a Jan. 5 news release that he had instituted the restrictions because he wanted to make the events “as hospitable and welcoming as possible,” use them for “hearing directly from constituents with serious questions or concerns,” and protect them “from being hijacked by out-of-district political grandstanders.”
While he claimed in his statement that the ban had only applied to reporters who did not live in the district, the ground rules for a Dec. 17 event at a public school in Westchester County said that “members of the press who are residents of the 17th Congressional District may attend in their capacity as a constituent, not as a member of the press.”
Lawler introduced the restrictions on Aug. 22, when his staff prevented me from photographing or recording a town hall held inside a Carmel public school. I was able to register and attend the event as a constituent and took notes for a story; Lawler’s office later provided photographs.
Citing The Current’s subsequent coverage, Common Cause New York, which describes itself as a nonpartisan organization that promotes good government, launched a petition urging the public to “tell Congressman Lawler: open your town halls to the press.” In addition, the U.S Press Freedom Tracker created by the Freedom of the Press Foundation and the Committee to Protect Journalists listed the Aug. 22 incident in its database of obstacles to news coverage.
At Lawler’s Dec. 17 town hall, Margaret Yonco-Haines, a Philipstown resident, challenged the ban. At the onset of the town halls, she told Lawler, “many of us were just astonished that you did not allow” media access, even though the events were “financed by the taxpayers and held in a public location” and coverage can tell those who could not be present “what happens” at such meetings. “Why are these not allowed to be covered by the press?”
Lawler replied that his town halls were “actually about engaging in conversations,” not about having his remarks taken “out of context or mischaracterized.” He emphasized his willingness to accept questions and “engage in discussions and debate. I have done more interviews than any member of the New York delegation,” he asserted. “So for any reporter to somehow suggest that I’m not available” or willing to talk “is a joke. It’s a joke.”
Although Yonco-Haines questioned Lawler’s ban, another attendee on Dec. 17 praised it. The news media “have been pushing back,” he told Lawler. “You wouldn’t be represented fairly” in coverage.
As discussion ensued, Lawler incorrectly claimed that his predecessor, Sean Patrick Maloney, a Democrat whom Lawler defeated in 2022, “would not go to communities that did not support him or vote for him.” In fact, at an outdoor town hall in Carmel in 2021, Maloney drew — and responded to — strident criticism; he similarly fielded hostile questions on other occasions.
Sam Silverman, press secretary for Rep. Pat Ryan, a first-term Democrat whose district includes Beacon, said on Wednesday (Jan. 10) that the press is welcome at Ryan’s town halls and other public gatherings.
“I don’t think it’s anything we really thought about” until Lawler was criticized, he said. Ryan’s office sends out notices about pending events “and the press shows up — or doesn’t show up, frankly. I’d like them to show up more.”
Less than three weeks after his Dec. 17 defense of his ban, Lawler rescinded it. Going forward, he said, “officially credentialed members of the press will be allowed” into town halls with cameras and recording devices, if they register. They do not have to be residents of the district, he added.
He also pledged, “at the conclusion of each town hall, and after I have had an opportunity to engage with all constituents seeking to speak with me, I will hold a press gaggle and take questions.”
Whether an elected official can legally restrict journalists at public events held in public buildings “is a trickier question to answer than it seems,” said Michael Higgins, an attorney formerly with the Civil Liberties & Transparency Clinic at the University at Buffalo. He said a judge would have to determine if an elected official holding a town hall acted in an official capacity or was conducting a campaign event. “What is clear is that the best practice is to have a robust public debate with the press present,” he said.
Behind The Story
News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.