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Georgia governor's office bars critical local TV station from event

By the CNN Wire Staff
  • NEW: State police defer to Gov. Deal after barring of a TV reporter from a bill signing
  • Deal's spokesman says the station won't get access until it apologizes for its coverage
  • The station aired a critical piece Thursday night tying campaign money to Deal's daughter-in-law
  • The state Attorney General's office says the governor didn't violate any law

Atlanta (CNN) -- Acting on the governor's orders, Georgia state police officers barred a local TV crew from attending a press event at the state capitol Friday -- their exclusion coming one day after the same station aired a piece critical of Gov. Nathan Deal.

The incident took place before a signing ceremony for HB 87, legislation establishing stiffer penalties and authorizing greater powers for local and state law enforcement officers to address illegal immigration.

Numerous television and newspaper reporters were allowed into the room at Georgia's statehouse for what was billed as an open press event. But a state police officer prevented a reporter from WAGA, an Atlanta-based television station, from going inside.

According to footage aired on the Fox station, the state trooper told WAGA's Justin Gray that the governor's press office had instructed him not to allow Gray or others from his station into the press conference.

A spokesman for the Georgia governor, Brian Robinson, then came to the door, according to a CNN reporter at the event. Answering a question from the WAGA reporter, Robinson said that the station's news team would not be granted any access until it apologized for its coverage of the governor.

WAGA aired a segment Thursday night in which it detailed how Deal's gubernatorial campaign paid $90,000 to a difficult-to-locate fundraising company linked to his daughter-in-law. Deal, a Republican, was sworn into office in January.

After the incident at the capitol, the Georgia State Patrol declined to comment, referring CNN to the governor's office.

Robinson, Deal's spokesman, stood by the governor's decision to single out WAGA and restrict the crew's access.

"We have a strong working relationship with Fox 5 that goes back a long way," Robinson wrote by e-mail. "We look forward to working with them again when they correct the record and apologize to their viewers for the shoddy journalism seen in the amateur story they aired Thursday night."

Peter Canfield, an Atlanta-based media lawyer who has been practicing for 30 years, noted that it is not unprecedented for a government official to exclude specific journalists from press conferences or other such events -- and then to get pushback, including legal action, because of it. But what makes this case unusual, Canfield said, is that Deal's office was so forthright that WAGA staffers were not allowed into Friday's event because of a specific story.

"If you have a clear statement, then that may be the basis for a lawsuit" by WAGA demanding equal access, Canfield said.

As it is part of the U.S. Constitution, the First Amendment guarantees members of the media and public certain rights in all states.

"One of which is the government executive, particularly in the state of Georgia, can't exclude people from public meetings on the basis of the content of their past speech," said Canfield, a partner in the Dow Lohnes law office.

But Lauren Kane, a spokeswoman for the state of Georgia's Attorney General's office, said that while some members of the press were in attendance at Friday's event, the signing was not a public meeting.

"There has to be a quorum for it to be a meeting," she said. "It was a governor signing a law."

The spokeswoman added that the office of Attorney General Sam Olens, a Republican, does not believe Deal violated any law.

"Nowhere in the law does it require the governor to admit certain news organizations to a press conference," said Kane.

A U.S. representative between 1993 and 2010, Deal's national profile rose when presidential contenders Newt Gingrich and Mike Huckabee backed him in last year's Republican gubernatorial primary, while Sarah Palin and Mitt Romney supported Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel. Deal won by a narrow margin, then went on to defeat Democrat Roy Barnes for the governorship.

This episode isn't the first time that Deal -- who switched his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican in the mid-1990s -- has found himself at odds with the media. In January, three weeks after his inauguration, the Spanish-language newspaper El Nuevo Georgia published a doctored photo of Deal depicting him as a Nazi.

The accompanying story, entitled "Repression in the Age of Deal," recapped an ethics investigation against Deal and talks about the governor's past financial troubles. The illustration drew criticism from Democrats and Republicans alike.

Robinson issued a statement at the time condemning the report.

"Those who can't formulate a coherent argument in our society's marketplace of ideas often resort to childish, even offensive tactics," he said. "This is pathetic."

CNN's Gustavo Valdes and Greg Botelho contributed to this report.