Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Nirav Shah speaks at a press briefing in Augusta on June 30, 2021. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Gov. Janet Mills’ administration on Wednesday said the news arms of two advocacy groups will be able to participate in the next weekly COVID-19 briefing after barring them in recent weeks.

The livestreamed briefings led by Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Nirav Shah were fixtures of the pandemic response for more than a year, allowing reporters to have an open forum with Shah and other officials, often including the Democratic governor. 

Regular briefings stopped in the summer as cases waned, but they began again in early September as the delta variant brought high case rates nationally and in Maine. By that time, news organizations run by the progressive Maine People’s Alliance and the conservative Maine Policy Institute were left out of the briefings widely attended by the rest of the state’s media.

Maine CDC spokesperson Robert Long told both their exclusion was due to them being “advocacy journalists,” according to emails provided to the Bangor Daily News. By the evening, Long sent emails to both groups saying they would be allowed to participate in the next one after press advocates said the exclusion could be challenged under the First Amendment.

“On its face value, it’s limiting and shuts public discourse out,” said Lynda Clancy, founding director of the Penobscot Bay Pilot and the president of the Maine Press Association, who said she was speaking for herself and not the newspaper advocacy group that the BDN belongs to.

Both groups pushed back against the state’s decision. Lauren McCauley, the editor of the Maine People’s Alliance-affiliated Beacon, said Long told her a few days after learning of the change on Aug. 25 that the decision was made to limit the length of the briefings. The Maine Policy Institute publicized its dispute with the state on Twitter ahead of a Wednesday briefing.

Maine Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew defended the decision at the briefing, saying the department takes questions through other mediums, like email, and briefings should be reserved for “credentialed media.”

Before he told the groups they would be able to ask questions at the next briefing, Long said the state determined it was in the public interest to limit briefings that often run over an hour. He contrasted news outlets like the BDN with those affiliated with advocacy groups that “solicit donations to promote political and ideological causes.”

The Maine People’s Alliance and the Maine Policy Institute are both nonprofits that serve different roles in state politics. The progressive group is a major force in Democratic electoral politics here, doing organizing for candidates and causes as well as lobbying on key issues.

The conservative group is a 501(c)3 nonprofit that is mostly barred from explicit political activity, releasing research in policy areas of interest to Republicans, including school choice and loosening occupational licensing regulations. It does not endorse candidates or tell people explicitly how to vote, noted Maine Policy Institute spokesperson Jacob Posik.

The First Amendment is supposed to prevent the government from censoring news media. The state’s move raises due process and First Amendment issues, said Sigmund Schutz, a media lawyer who represents the Portland Press Herald. He argued that the CDC had no clear standard for outlets that get to attend and is discriminating based on viewpoints.

“In other words, why not let political or advocacy organizations ask questions?” he said.

The Mills administration’s stated willingness to continue to field questions from the outlets through other means distinguishes it from a 2013 move from the office of Gov. Paul LePage to issue blanket no-comments to the Press Herald and affiliated papers after an investigation of a top state official. LePage is Mills’ Republican opponent in next year’s election.

But the Maine Wire, the Maine Policy institute’s news arm, barely gets questions answered by the administration, Posik said. It did not look to participate in briefings until this summer after it hired a dedicated reporter who attended one briefing but was not called on because she did not indicate she wanted to ask a question.

A Beacon reporter frequently participated in the briefings in the spring before they ended in the early summer. McCauley, the site’s editor, said the move “harms the public interest and is especially damaging for folks who too often are left out of the conversation already.”

Clancy said the state has other remedies if it wishes to shorten briefings, including limiting the overall number of questions asked. She said it could set a precedent for the Mills administration to limit participation in other briefings.

“It seems like the hammer is coming down hard without a lot of explanation,” she said.

BDN writer Michael Shepherd contributed to this report.