Online news outlet Alaska Landmine sues Dunleavy administration over access

A white man in a black suit
Gov. Mike Dunleavy at the Capitol in Juneau in 2019. Alaska Landmine owner Jeff Landfield has sued Dunleavy and members of his administration, saying they’re violating constitutional protections he has as a journalist by barring access to press conferences. (Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

Alaska Landmine owner and journalist Jeff Landfield is suing Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration. He says the administration has violated his constitutional rights by excluding him from Dunleavy’s press conferences.

While Landfield said he’s been considering legal action for some time, the incident that prompted the lawsuit happened in early December when Dunleavy held a news conference announcing his 2021 budget.

As he has done since taking office in 2018, Dunleavy began the news conference by laying out key points. Then, spokesperson Jeff Turner called on reporters with questions.

At the end of the Q&A, Turner gave reporters some instructions and then turned it back over to the governor — but Landfield interrupted. 

“Can I ask a question?” he asked over the phone line. 

“I’m sorry, who was that?” Turner responded. 

Landfield identified himself and repeated, “Can I ask a question?”

Spokesperson Jeff Turner gestures to reporters during a press conference on Gov. Mike Dunleavy's newest budget proposal on Wednesday, December 11, 2019, at the Capitol in Juneau, Alaska. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/KTOO)
Spokesperson Jeff Turner gestures to reporters during a press conference in 2019.  (Photo by Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

“Sorry Jeff, we’re going to closing comments — thank you,” Turner said. 

Landfield runs the website Alaska Landmine. It started as a political news blog in 2017, but has since branched out to covering a range of topics. 

He said he had a question about how the governor’s budget might go over in the Legislature. But he wasn’t called on to ask it. In fact, Landfield had not been invited to the news conference at all — other reporters sent him the information he needed to call in. 

“I just got really kind of pissed off that I couldn’t ask a question and I was treated like that,” he said. 

Landfield describes a tense relationship with the Dunleavy administration that has gotten worse this year.  

“I’m treated like a second class or second-tier person,” he said. He doesn’t get notices of news conferences. “I have to rely on somebody telling me, and that doesn’t always happen.”

And after that last news conference, Landfield says he had enough. He contacted law firm Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt, which sent a letter to the Dunleavy administration saying they were violating his constitutional rights by barring him from new conferences. They demanded that Landfield be allowed full access to the governor’s news conferences and that he’d get the same notice that other members of the media get. 

A white man with a brown beard sits in front of his laptop at a desk
Jeff Landfield, blogger, The Alaska Landmine, sports a black eye given to him by a legislative staffer in a bar in Juneau on Friday, March 22, 2019. The photo was taken on March 25, 2019 at his “office” in public lounge in the Capitol while he was talking with Alaska Energy Desk reporter Nat hertz. (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)

The governor’s office didn’t do that, so the Alaska Landmine sued. The lawsuit names Gov. Mike Dunleavy, his spokesman Jeff Turner and his Chief of Staff Ben Stevens — three people Landfield said he has tried to talk to to find out why he’s being locked out of press conferences. 

To date, they haven’t given him a reason. But Landfield said Turner has implied that he isn’t a “real” journalist. 

That idea — that Landfield isn’t a real journalist — is something he and his lawyers have worked to disprove in the lawsuit. 

They point out that he has thousands of readers in Alaska, that he’s broken news that has shaped national, state and local government policy. Those stories are often picked up by other news organizations. 

Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s Chief of Staff Ben Stevens talks to Senate Majority Leader Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, after Dunleavy's State of the State address on Monday, January 27, 2020 in Juneau, Alaska. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/KTOO)
Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s Chief of Staff Ben Stevens talks to Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, in 2020 in Juneau. Stevens is being sued by Alaska Landmine journalist Jeff Landfield. (Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

Landfield said he doesn’t think the journalism he does is much different than others in the state, so he’s not sure why he’s having issues with this administration. He said he hasn’t always written critically about them. 

“You couldn’t argue or say that I’ve gone after them unfairly. I think I’ve been pretty fair,” Landfield said. “But, again, they probably don’t like the way I say things, and they don’t have any recourse to call the boss when I say something they don’t like.

Landfield said it’s hard to do his job when he can’t ask questions of politicians and people in power in public

“There’s a difference between asking someone a question one on one and then asking someone a question when everybody’s watching. You know, the answers might change,” he said. “I think it’s important to hold these legislators and the governor accountable.”

Landfield does do some things that are unusual for a journalist. He sometimes weaves his opinions into news stories. He ran for office this year in Senate District L. His campaign lasted from June 1, when he filed, to August 31, when he withdrew. 

But both Landfield and his lawyer say he is a journalist. And there are foundational legal protections that come with doing the job. 

I’m tired of having to fight to be able to go to these press conferences,” he said. “I never really appreciated the freedom of the press. I always believed in it, but I never really appreciated it until I started doing the Landmine. And, you know, we — through reporting — have changed policy. We’ve exposed things that would never have been exposed otherwise. That’s a very powerful thing and that should not be hampered. That should not be minimized by anybody.” 

The governor’s office doesn’t issue press passes. There isn’t a board in the state that decides who is or is not a journalist. The legislature has issued Landfield a press pass. 

And even if members of Dunleavy’s administration take exception to his brand of journalism, his lawyer Matt Singer argues they can’t stop him from writing about them, or politics. 

“One aspect of a free press is that the government — including the governor — don’t get to pick and choose which media are entitled to report about government affairs,” he said. 

Singer said Landfield does a type of journalism that is disruptive. But he said the nature of media is evolving.

“Just because it’s different, just because it’s a different approach, doesn’t mean that it’s not entitled to the same constitutional protections and that it isn’t a valuable source of information for Alaskan citizens,” he said. 

Singer said it would be a simple fix to do what he and Landfield are asking them to do. 

“In this time of COVID, many of the governor’s press conferences are being done virtually. So fixing this issue would be as easy as adding the Alaska Landmine to an email invitation for virtual press conferences,” he said. 

It’s not clear what kind of argument the state could make against allowing Landfield into the press conferences. Maria Bahr, a spokesperson for the Department of Law, said the state has seen the lawsuit, but wouldn’t talk about the particulars of the state’s response to Landfield’s demand letter or how the state plans to argue in court. She wrote in an email that they’d file a response with the court.

Landfield’s legal team filed an injunction on Tuesday, essentially asking for the court to require that Landfield be allowed to attend press conferences while the lawsuit works its way through the system. They’ve asked that a hearing be set to consider their request on Dec. 30.