When Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a new bill Thursday morning to change mail-in voting in Florida, the only television cameras allowed to capture the moment belonged to Fox News.
Outside, reporters and videographers from local news outlet were told the ceremonial bill signing was an “exclusive” for Fox & Friends, the conservative network’s morning show. DeSantis confirmed as much later in the day.
But Fox never asked for the special treatment. In a statement to the Tampa Bay Times, the network said, “FOX & Friends did not request or mandate that the May 6th event and interview with Gov. Ron DeSantis be exclusive to FOX News Media entities.”
Later, the network clarified that its producers there weren’t aware that DeSantis was going to sign the bill on camera. He was booked for on Thursday for “an interview and not as a live bill signing.”
About five minutes into the interview, Fox & Friends co-host Brian Kilmeade probed DeSantis about the details in the election bill and asked, “What are you about to sign?”
“I have what we think is the strongest election integrity measures in the country. I’m actually going to sign it right here,” DeSantis said as he put a blue Sharpie to paper.
“There you go,” another co-host, Steve Doocy said. “It’s official.
DeSantis then held up a poster board the outlined the bill, prompting Doocy to exclaim: “He came with graphics!”
Just before his appearance, DeSantis posted on Twitter that he was joining Fox & Friends to sign the bill. Local Republicans advertised the governor’s appearance on Wednesday night.
The governor’s office did not respond to Fox News’ characterization of how Thursday’s event transpired. In Panama City Beach later that morning, DeSantis defended only letting Fox & Friends in the room because it was aired on national television.
“We did a wonderful bill signing for this great elections bill,” DeSantis said. “It was live on national television. We were happy to give them the exclusive on that. That’s broadcast to millions of people.”
Aside from the optics, there’s also a question of whether DeSantis violated the First Amendment by shutting members of the press out of a public event, experts told the Times. A federal court in Ohio upheld that a public official cannot discriminate against journalists based on perceived bias, said Clay Calvert, a University of Florida law professor and director of the school’s First Amendment Project.
People who don’t have a cable subscription or who don’t watch that network, though, wouldn’t have seen it.
In addition to DeSantis, several elected officials joined him in West Palm Beach for the bill signing, including Lt. Gov. Jeanette Núñez and the bill’s sponsors, Rep. Blaise Ingoglia and Sen. Dennis Baxley. Members of a local fan club for former President Donald Trump were also in attendance.
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“If this is a public proceeding, he should not have discriminated against journalists based on their perceived stance on political issues,” Calvert said. “A bill signing typically is a public proceeding.”
Edward Birk, a Jacksonville-based First Amendment attorney, said elected officials can grant exclusive arrangements with certain news organizations but they cannot exclude media to a public event.
“Regardless whether it violates the First Amendment, which it may, it’s bad government,” Birk said.
Backlash to the staged event was immediate. Democrats accused DeSantis of hiding behind a friendly network as he signed one of his more contentious priorities. The legislation DeSantis signed, Senate Bill 90, requires people to request mail-in every two years instead of every four, curbs the use of drop boxes and limits the ability for someone to turn in a ballot for non-family members.
The sequence of events also provided a potential line of attack for future political opponents of DeSantis.
“This is the difference between Gov. Ron DeSantis and me,” U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, a Democratic candidate for governor, tweeted. “He locks out the public and caters to Fox News. When I was governor, I invited everyone in.”
Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a Democrat and another potential gubernatorial candidate, compared the actions taken by leaders in Venezuela and China.
“Authoritarian regimes have state run presses, not here in America,” Fried said.