Shut out of televised debates, Libertarian candidate for governor Adrian Wyllie filed a federal lawsuit Thursday that seeks to force the Florida Press Association and Leadership Florida to allow him on stage with Gov. Rick Scott and Democrat Charlie Crist next week.
Wyllie's suit, arguing his free-speech and equal-protection rights are being infringed, largely revolves around the debate organizers' candidate-participation criteria, which says candidates who earn 15 percent support in a "reputable independent poll" by Sept. 30 can join the debate.
The criteria, Wyllie claims, were changed on him as he picked up support heading into the Oct. 15 debate at Broward College, which is named in the suit along with the nonprofit Leadership Florida and press association, a media industry trade and lobby group.
However, as early as Aug. 20, 2013, the 15 percent polling rule was set by the press association. It was specifically reported by the News Service of Florida on that day. Dean Ridings, president and CEO of the press association, said the criteria about polling thresholds predate 2013 and have been around since 2010.
"We want to be fair and consistent," Ridings said. "There are 10 candidates for governor and why would it be fair to them to change our criteria?"
Wyllie is planning a protest at another televised debate to be held Friday at the studios Telemundo51/NBC6 in Miramar, where Crist and Scott will face off for the first time. The debate will be broadcast at 7 p.m. that night. The third and final debate between the two major candidates takes place Oct. 21 in Jacksonville.
Crist wanted more debates, but Scott would only agree to three. Scott's running mate, Lt. Governor Carlos Lopez-Cantera, has also ignored calls from Crist's running mate, Annette Taddeo, to debate on television.
Four polls this week indicate Crist is starting to edge Scott, though the Democrat's lead is within the margin of error of the surveys, meaning the race is essentially a tie.
In Wyllie's lawsuit over next week's debate, part of the controversy stems from the fact that the Florida Press Association and Leadership Florida invited Wyllie to a separate July 10 candidate forum where the polling threshold was established at 12 percent, including a survey's margin of error.
So, Ridings explained in an email this summer to Wyllie, if the candidate got 8 percent support in a reputable poll with an error-margin of 4 percent, he could participate. Ridings said, however, that this forum was different and had different qualification rules from the televised debate.
Factoring in the margin of error, Wyllie has gotten close to registering 15 percent support in some recent polls. But Ridings said it's just not enough to merit debate participation.
Part of Wyllie's predicament stems from the vicious cycle of running for office as an underfunded, unknown candidate from a third party. To mount a major campaign with a realistic chance in a big media state like Florida, it takes millions of dollars to pay for television ads that move the electorate.
TV news, and newspapers to a slightly lesser degree, give little space to such candidates because they have slim odds — a lack of coverage that decreases their chances because they have no other way to get their message out to a mass media audience.
Still, Wyllie has aggressively harnessed social media, and he has made clever campaign moves that use the courts and even micro-breweries to get his name out.
At the same time, Crist and Scott have together paid for more than $64 million in TV ads. Much of the ads have been negative, which has likely helped improve Wyllie's standing in polls as an alternative candidate to the mudslingers.
"The ADRIAN WYLLIE Campaign has generated substantial public interest, and would clearly general appreciably more public interest if allowed to enjoy the true guarantees provided by (federal law) and if he was truly provided 'equal access' to the publicity surrounding the integral debate component of the electoral process," his suit says.
Because Broward College is a public institution funded by taxpayers, Wyllie says, it's abridging his First Amendment speech rights by denying him access to the debate as a serious candidate.
Wyllie argues that his Fourteenth Amendment equal protection rights are also being harmed as a result by the college, whose "actions" he describes as " arbitrary, oppressive and capricious."
Wyllie points out that Broward College's president, J. David Armstrong, is also the chair of Leadership Florida, thereby making the institution an active participant in the ground rules.
But Ridings, with the press association, said that's not true, either. He said Armstrong was specifically excluded from decisions about the debate-qualification rules and, again, that the rules have been the same for four years.
"There is certainly an argument to be made that having Wyllie would provide more information to the voters," Ridings said. "But we're not going to change criteria in mid-stream because we like a candidate and he's doing better."