Council vote ends media access to House and Senate floorBy Gregory Nickerson January 8, 2013
The joint Management Council of the Wyoming Legislature voted today to end media access to tables on the floor of both chambers in the Capitol.
The vote by leaders of the House and Senate came on the afternoon of the first day of the 2013 session, amid concerns that reporters working for advocacy groups could have undue influence on electors.
Traditionally, media had the special privilege of entering the floor of the Capitol chambers, access not granted to the general public. Reporters sat at tables in the front of each chamber, where they could observe proceedings and receive copies of amendments at the same time as legislators. Members of the public and lobbyists looked down on the chamber floor from gallery balconies on the third floor.
In the meeting of the Management Council this afternoon, Speaker of the House Rep. Tom Lubnau (R-Gillette) said the restriction on access was necessary because of the rise of advocacy groups that lobby and produce media for distribution in newsletters or via the Internet.
For example, groups like the Equality State Policy Center (ESPC) or Wyoming Liberty Group actively lobby legislators, but they also produce written material for their members and the public.
Wyoming Press Association director Jim Angell said a writer working for one advocacy group (Wyoming Liberty Group) allegedly had entered the floor for reporting purposes then gave legislators “the evil eye.”
Lawmakers don’t take kindly to intimidation within the chamber, where the ability to freely vote one’s conscience is held in high regard.
To resolve the issue, Senate Majority Floor Leader Phil Nicholas (R-Laramie) made a motion to remove all members of the media from the floor of both chambers, while allowing occasional use of floor-level corridors by press photographers.
Nicholas’ motion also proposed that amendments normally delivered on the floor of each chamber also be delivered by staff to the third floor galleries, where the public and media will continue to have free access.
Angell offered an alternative to a complete media ban, proposing to create a credentialing commission to determine which media outlets would be allowed access to the floor.
Angell pointed to similar credentialing policies in place in Montana and Colorado, which define media as print, radio, TV, and online outlets that produce news content on a regular basis for consumption by a broad segment of the public. While such outlets often run opinion and editorial pieces, their primary role is delivering news, not advocating for specific policies. Angell’s proposed credentialing process would have disallowed writers from lobbying organizations to access the floor, though they would be allowed free access to galleries.
The Management Council seemed unconvinced that a credentialing process that discriminated against advocacy-based media outlets could be implemented fairly. Instead, they passed Nicholas’ motion, feeling satisfied that the benefits of being on the floor — good photography angles and ready access to amendments — could still be provided without the need for constant media access to tables on the floor.
For most longtime legislative reporters, the vote won’t drastically change they way they do their jobs.
In my previous conversations with veteran journalist Geoffrey O’Gara, he told me he rarely sat at the tables in the chambers because doing so restricted him from being able to leave the room to attend other meetings as needed. Other legislative journalists made similar comments.
Angell said much of the concern about access to the tables seemed to come from news outlets that rarely cover the legislature in person, but nonetheless felt wronged to have access taken away.
With the ability to photograph from corridors maintained, along with the option of receiving amendments on the third floor gallery, the Management Council felt journalists should still be able to perform their work efficiently, though they will no longer have floor-level access with legislators.
After the Management Council adjourned, Angell came to speak with journalists in the press room in the Capitol, a small, crowded room shared by the Casper Star-Tribune, the Associated Press, Wyoming Public Media, the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, and now WyoFile.
To Angell, the ban marked an end of an era where the media had the privilege of direct, close access to lawmakers. The vote had particular significance to him because he met his wife at the press table on the floor of the Wyoming Legislature.
Gregory Nickerson is the government and policy reporter for WyoFile. Contact him at [email protected]