Journalists who cover Arizona’s legislature took a stand Thursday against a new rule limiting their access to the floor of the state House of Representatives. They're accusing the speaker of trying to undermine fearless reporting.
The rule requires journalists seeking to enter non-public areas of the state House to first agree to background checks covering their criminal and civil histories, including driving records.
Instead of agreeing, 14 reporters and photographers choose Thursday to watch the legislative proceedings from the balcony for public observers, where they shared space with elementary and high school students, according to the Arizona Republic. The lighting is dimmer in the balcony, and there are no desks or other workspaces for reporters, the newspaper noted.
Reporters interviewed by several media outlets described access to the House floor as an essential means of communicating with lawmakers. Journalists have been allowed there for decades, they said.
Arizona House Speaker David Gowan (R), who instituted the new restrictions, claimed they're aimed at ensuring the safety of lawmakers faced by disruptive protesters. He noted that the rule applies to all non-employees of the state House, the Arizona Capitol Times reported.
The speaker conceded there has never been a safety threat from a reporter, but insisted it did not matter.
“There had never been an attack on 9/11 either, like that occurred either, before on our shore,” Gowan told the Capitol Times. “But it did.”
State House reporters suggested that Gowan is trying to punish critical reporters in general and the Capitol Times’ Hank Stephenson in particular. Earlier this year, Stephenson published a long investigation into Arizona legislators’ use of state funds for travel, which ultimately led to Gowan repaying the state $12,000.
The new rule bars individuals from being cleared for admission on the House floor if a background check finds they have committed specific crimes ranging from rape to trespass. Stephenson pleaded guilty to misdemeanor trespassing charges in October 2014, for which he finished paying a fine in April 2015, according to the Republic.
Democratic House members, many of whom opposed the rule, drew attention to the fact that Gowan has allowed individual lawmakers to carry concealed guns on the House floor.
But state Rep. Kelly Townsend (R) said the right to be armed is also a matter of upholding lawmakers’ safety, the Republic reported. "As a woman, I'm comforted by the fact our members can carry a weapon here," she said.
David Bodney, a local media attorney, is representing the Republic, Capitol Times and Associated Press in talks with the House over the new rule.
“There has to be a rational basis for a new policy, and then the new policy should be narrowly tailored or at least fairly tailored to address that basis,” Bodney told the Republic.
Meanwhile, reporters remain free to move around the floor of the Arizona state Senate without having to pass a background check, the local PBS affiliate, Cronkite News, reported. The outlet noted that some reporters who might not otherwise cover the Senate made a point of going there Thursday afternoon to highlight the contrast between the two chambers.