Plan to limit journalists’ access at Capitol moves forward

During committee hearing, both Senate lawmakers and journalists expressed need for a press corps to navigate access and other issues.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Resolution sponsor, Sen. Mike McKell discusses SR1, during the Senate Business and Labor Committee meeting, which will limit media access to the Senate floor and committee rooms, at the Capitol, on Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2022.

After an animated debate between legislators and journalists, the Senate Business and Labor Committee on Wednesday approved a rules change that would limit media access to the Senate floor.

The rules change, proposed by state Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, would require credentialed reporters to get permission from a “Senate media designee” to enter the Senate floor to interview a lawmaker. The measure also prevents reporters, including videographers and photographers, from standing behind a committee room’s dais without the permission of a committee chair.

The rules resolution, which moved forward on a 7-1 vote, is now headed to the Senate for consideration.

Journalists’ access to committee meetings or lawmakers would not be limited under the bill, McKell said. In prior years, Senate rules allowed credentialed members of the press to enter the Senate floor, halls and lounge during recess without permission. Reporters have long been able to conduct interviews with busy lawmakers, who they might otherwise have trouble reaching, on the Senate floor.

“News media is always welcome in our committee rooms. That is a long-standing tradition that is not going to change,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is create a rule so it’s clear what the access looks like, when that access is appropriate, when it is not.”

McKell also added that the Utah Senate has a daily news conference to answer reporters’ questions.

“We want the press here. We want to be accountable,” he said.

During committee meetings, news photographers and videographers often stand behind the dais to get footage of witnesses who are testifying.

McKell’s proposal comes as state Legislatures in Kansas and Iowa have introduced measures to limit media access on their Senate floors.

During the nearly two-hour hearing in a cramped committee room, reporters and nonprofits representing journalists spoke against the resolution. They said it would prevent journalists from holding elected officials accountable and make it more difficult to inform the public.

Mike Friedrich, news director at KUTV, urged committee members to vote against the resolution.

“When you look at this specific bill, I’m testifying, urging all of you to not support a bill that would restrict any access to journalists in the state legislature,” Friedrich said. “This bill gives a general tone and an optic that you’re limiting access and transparency.”

State Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, chair of the committee, said that in his 22 years of being a legislator, he has seen two instances where reporters interrupted the work of a committee. While there have been very few disruptions, Bramble said the rules would add clarity.

“These rules are intended to address the exception,” Bramble said.

State Sen. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, the only lawmaker on the committee to vote against the measure, said there was a better way to address the issue.

“The one thing we need to do is have actually some dialogue with the media and finding a good way to do it. This is not about fake news. This is about making sure that truth is heard and that we get to allow that message to get out from here and not make those who are reporting it feel somehow that this is not fair to them,” he said.

In speaking against the bill, The Salt Lake Tribune’s executive editor, Lauren Gustus, said she understands the need for security, referring to a situation where Tribune photographer Rick Egan was pepper-sprayed during a protest outside the Utah Capitol in 2021. Gustus instead called for a collaborative conversation among legislative leaders, the Capitol Preservation Board and newsroom representatives to discuss press access.

“Our responsibility as journalists is to verify, to fact check, to make sure that things are accurate. When they’re not, we run corrections. We let people know that we were wrong,” she said. “But it is to write what we know and it is critical that there is some accountability with respect to those who have tremendous power, such as you.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Resolution sponsor, Sen. Mike McKell listens as Salt Lake Tribune Executive Editor, Lauren Gustus appears in front of the Senate Business and Labor Committee speaking in opposition of SR1, which will limit media access to the Senate floor and committee rooms, at the Capitol, on Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2022.

Politics reporters Ben Winslow, of FOX 13, and Katie McKellar, of Deseret News, shared practical concerns with the rules change and advocated for the creation of a Capitol press corps, as Davis also did. In Washington, D.C., and other statehouses, such groups negotiate media access rules with legislative leaders and handle the press credentialing process.

McKellar said adding steps to set up an interview instead of directly asking a lawmaker for clarification when the Senate is in recess would take too long.

State Sen. Todd D. Weiler, R-Woods Cross, defending the measure, said adding more security is needed after the U.S. Capitol attacks. He also likened a committee room to a courtroom.

“I’m totally comfortable with having the chair control the committee hearing. I think a judge controls his courtroom,” he said.

Towards the end of the debate, Bramble said he would welcome more discussion on the matter with leaders, but in the meantime said it is important to have boundaries and rules that “everyone understands.”

A similar joint rules resolution was introduced this week. It would also require credentialed press to gain permission from a committee chair before standing behind a committee room dais.