Virginia Lawmakers Ban Reporters From State Senate Floor, Prompting Transparency Concerns

“We need more transparency in the General Assembly, not less.”
State senators, including Thomas Norment (center, face visible to the camera), discuss proceedings during a break in the
State senators, including Thomas Norment (center, face visible to the camera), discuss proceedings during a break in the Senate session at the Capitol in Richmond, Va. in Feb. 2013.

Less than a week after Missouri senators voted overwhelmingly to ban reporters from the state Senate floor, prompting a dust-up about press restrictions in politics, a similar drama is now unfolding in Virginia.

On Wednesday, the opening day of the General Assembly, reporters were turned away from the entrance to the Virginia Senate floor, where they have covered the chamber for decades, The Virginian-Pilot reports. The journalists were directed to sit in a small corner of an upper gallery instead.

According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, the decision to boot reporters from the floor was made by Virginia Senate Majority Leader Thomas Norment Jr. (R-James City), and was part of the changes to the Senate rules approved on Wednesday.

When asked about the change, Norment told reporters: “There’s no comment necessary for it.”

According to the Times-Dispatch, the change “effectively revokes media privileges from the floor of the Senate when it is in session.”

“Historically, the vantage point [in the chamber] has provided an opportunity for reporters to directly observe proceedings on ground level, review floor amendments, obtain copies of votes and observe interaction among lawmakers in real time,” the newspaper wrote. “Instead, a tight space in the far corner of the upstairs balcony with limited sight lines of the chamber was cordoned off for media, offering no writing space and minimal access to electrical outlets for their laptops.”

Speaking on the floor Wednesday, Sen. Ryan McDougle (R-Hanover County) said the rule change had been enacted “to allow more space for lawmakers and pages, the teenage assistants who serve food to senators and run errands for them.”

When pressed for more details later, however, McDougle told reporters to “ask Sen. Norment.”

State Democrats and journalists have both raised their voices in alarm about the change.

“We need more transparency in the General Assembly, not less,” Lt. Gov. Ralph S. Northam, a Democrat who presides over the state Senate, said in a statement. “The media plays a very important role here at the Capitol as we conduct the people’s business. Removing members of the press from the floor only makes their jobs more difficult and, in the end, is a disservice to Virginians.”

Reporters are still allowed on the floor of the Virginia House of Delegates, per the Virginian-Pilot. In fact, Speaker of the House William J. Howell (R-Stafford) recently announced actions to make House procedures more transparent, not less. 

In 2015, the Center for Public Integrity gave Virginia an overall grade of “D” in its state integrity report card. The state also earned an “F” in public access to information, and a “D” in both executive and legislative accountability.


Earlier on HuffPost: