A conservative media outlet and one of its white reporters sued Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Thursday, alleging their free speech and civil rights were violated last week when she only granted interviews marking her two-year anniversary in office to reporters of color.
Thomas Catenacci, and the Daily Caller News Foundation for which he is a national reporter, filed a lawsuit in federal court in Illinois a week after Lightfoot’s decision led to conservative backlash as well as a renewed debate about diversity in the media.
“Preventing journalists from doing our jobs in such a blatantly discriminatory way is wrong and does a disservice to our readers who come from all backgrounds,” Catenacci wrote in a statement. “I look forward to holding the mayor accountable.”
Catenacci is being represented by the Chicago-based Svenson Law Offices as well as the conservative group Judicial Watch.
Lightfoot’s Law Department spokeswoman declined to comment on Thursday, saying that the city has not been served yet, but the mayor previously shrugged off criticism of her decision last week in a news conference that included white reporters.
“One day out of 365, I say that I’m going to mark the anniversary of my two years in office by giving exclusive one-on-ones to journalists of color, and the world loses its mind,” Lightfoot said. “How about we focus on doing what is necessary to step up?”
The lawsuit alleges that “Mayor Lightfoot recently announced publicly that she is only granting interview requests from journalists of color.” Lightfoot has said that decision was never meant to go beyond the one day of her two-year anniversary in office. But Catenacci alleges in the suit that his emails on May 20, 21 and 24 went ignored and as of Thursday, the mayor’s office had not responded.
The lawsuit said Lightfoot “purposefully discriminated against Plaintiff Catenacci because of his race by stating that she would only grant interview requests from ‘journalists of color.’” It goes on to say he was “irreparably harmed” from the alleged denial of his right to free speech and equal protection under the First Amendment and 14th Amendment.
Interviews to mark Lightfoot’s two years in office were set for last week and came as she faces mounting problems over crime, policing, turnover in her office and ongoing battles with the Chicago Teachers Union. The Tribune declined to participate in an interview with Lightfoot to object to the restrictions.
Catenacci’s co-plaintiff, the Daily Caller News Foundation, is a separate legal entity from The Daily Caller, which was cofounded in 2010 by Tucker Carlson, a current Fox News host who recently compared Lightfoot to a Nazi for implementing the one-time interview policy. But among local and other mainstream media, the response has led to defenses that the mayor was prioritizing journalists who have traditionally been excluded, with others pushing back that the restrictions were discriminatory.
According to The Daily Caller’s website, it has a licensing agreement with the foundation for which Catenacci works that allows them to share content. That arrangement has raised questions in The Washington Post and elsewhere on whether the foundation should be allowed to generate content for the for-profit news outlet while receiving a tax-exempt status.
University of Chicago law professor Geoffrey Stone said he predicts the courts will toss both the First Amendment and 14th Amendment violation allegations from the lawsuit. The free speech argument is “frivolous,” he said, because public officials from Lightfoot to former Republican President Donald Trump all play favorites with the media.
“For anyone to be interfering with those decisions will be a nightmare, because there’s no standards realistically by which the courts could say, ‘No, no, you have to see that person if you agree to see this person,’” Stone said.
Though the equal protection complaint is a bit more nuanced, Stone said, ultimately the fact that Lightfoot’s rules purportedly applied for only one day likely saves her because it can be viewed from the lens of a temporary practice to instill greater diversity among the press corps.
“Given that she’s talking only about one day, it seems to be blown out of proportion, to make a fuss over it,” Stone said.
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