There is a controversy in my hometown of Chicago after various reporters confirmed that they were told by the spokesperson for Mayor Lori Lightfoot that she is only giving interviews to black and brown reporters. Reporters wanted interviews to mark the halfway mark of Lightfoot’s first term. The Mayor has faced controversies from her breaking her own COVID rules to surging crime rates. The question is whether a race-based criteria for reporters is not just actionable but whether the media is prepared to sue Lightfoot for discriminatory policies. Lightfoot’s “Bring in the Light” campaign for mayor was based in part on promises of greater transparency.
NBC 5 Chicago political reporter Mary Ann Ahern took to Twitter on Tuesday to state that “As @chicagosmayor reaches her two year midway point as mayor, her spokeswoman says Lightfoot is granting 1 on 1 interviews – only to Black or Brown journalists.” The same message was given WTTW Chicago Tonight anchor and correspondent Paris Schutz who tweeted “I was told the same thing.” Chicago politics reporter Heather Cherone also tweeted “I can confirm.”
These are well-known and respected journalists. The mayor’s office has thus far declined to respond to the stories.
One of the most significant aspects of this controversy is that Lightfoot ordered staff to enforce the race-based criteria. That means that the policy was carried out with city staff and resources.
The use of race criteria ordinarily violates anti-discrimination laws. Indeed, businesses are warned by Lightfoot’s government that they will not tolerate any race-based discrimination:
The City’s primary goal is that business and property owners know about these laws so that (1) you will be able to comply, (2) you will prevent discrimination claims, and (3) your employees and clientele will be protected from discriminatory practices.
The Illinois Human Rights Law states that unlawful discrimination
“means discrimination against a person because of his or her actual or perceived: race, color, religion, national origin, ancestry, age, sex, marital status, order of protection status, disability, military status, sexual orientation, pregnancy, or unfavorable discharge from military service as those terms are defined in this Section.”
Obviously, reporters are not “employees” of the mayor and this is not one of the specific areas like housing with separate anti-discrimination frameworks for complaints. However, it is possible to seek an injunction to bar Lightfoot from barring reporters based on their race, including federal injunctive relief.
It is hard to find cases on discriminatory policies of access in the media. In 2020, YouTube was sued in California by black creators who alleged the company was systematically removing their content based on race. In that case, the plaintiffs said that the software limited access to the platform based on race. YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki responded during a Washington Post Live event with a categorical denial, noting “It’s not like our systems understand race or any of those different demographics.”
Here the reporters are alleging that Lightfoot is openly and knowingly barring White and presumably Asian reporters.
Such policies are difficult to litigate and often politicians will back away when confronted on such discrimination. Even the EEOC admits that “[f]iguring out whether or not a state or local government is covered can be complicated…It is also important to keep in mind that, if an employer is not covered by the laws we enforce, the employer still may be covered by a state or local anti-discrimination law.” Nevertheless, the EEOC stresses that “if you have a complaint against a state or local government agency that involves race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information, the agency is covered by the laws we enforce if it has 15 or more employees who worked for the agency for at least twenty calendar weeks (in this year or last).”
Since Lightfoot’s office has simply not responded, it is not clear why she has reportedly imposed a race-based criteria or how long it would remain in place. She has previously insisted that “[w]e can’t address systemic racism, inequality and injustice without having hard conversations.” However, reporters say that her office has not responded to inquiries on a race-based criteria for interviews.
The Mayor could assert that this was just a brief preference based on race to empower minority reporters. Politicians often reach out to minority stations and media, though this alleged policy would bar anyone from any media outlet based on their race. She has campaigned against all forms of racial discrimination:
“We are also challenging all kinds of institutions from corporations to community-based organizations to think about what they can do better to end systemic racism and make sure that we are uplifting quality of life in communities, but also the voices of people that traditionally don’t have a seat at the table.”
This includes special programs to address systemic racism including the City’s Racial Equity Rapid Response Team (RERRT) during the pandemic.
However, the use of race criteria by government officials has long been treated as presumptively invalid unless it is a program designed to remedy past systemic discrimination. Such programs however face closely scrutiny in their conception and implementation. Race-based criteria are not meant to be casual or informal rules imposed by city leaders.