Utah journalists can no longer interview lawmakers on Senate and House floors without permission

Credentialed reporters are now restricted from entering the House and Senate floor of the Utah Capitol to conduct interviews without permission.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Utah Capitol at dusk on Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2020, during the legislative session.

The Utah House of Representatives restricted media access to lawmakers on the statehouse floor on Tuesday.

After a nearly 20-minute debate, state representatives moved to approve the House rules resolution, HR2, sponsored by Rep. James Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, on a 65 to 9 vote.

Credentialed reporters are now restricted from entering the House and Senate floor of the Capitol without permission, a move that has sparked criticism from media outlets and press advocacy organizations.

Dunnigan’s rules resolution that alters media access in the House chamber mirrors a similar measure approved by the Senate last month. HR2 prevents credentialed journalists from entering nonpublic areas of the House, including the chamber, halls and conference rooms, to conduct and record interviews without the permission of the House speaker or speaker’s designee. The rules change also requires reporters to obtain approval from a committee chair before standing behind a committee room dais.

A few lawmakers, both Republican and Democrat, openly opposed the rules resolution limiting access to media.

During floor debate of the rules resolution, state Rep. Suzanne Harrison, D-Draper, asked Dunnigan if there had been any instances where reporters harassed lawmakers or published private information when looking over their shoulder.

Dunnigan said sometimes lawmakers feel uncomfortable looking at their computers or phones when a videographer is standing behind a lawmaker during a committee meeting. Photographers and videographers often stand behind the dais during a committee meeting to capture footage of a lawmaker or witness testifying for or against a bill.

“As far as the nonpublic areas, I’ll just state again, these are nonpublic areas. I think the media should have access, and I think the speaker or his designee will give them access. All they have to do is request it for these nonpublic areas,” Dunnigan said.

“I just have concerns about the restrictions on our free press,” Harrison said in response. “I feel like if there is abusive practices or harassment going on in any way, I think that would certainly warrant ... an individual being restricted, but I think our free press plays a vital role in holding power to account and the business of the public should be done in public, and for that reason, I’ll be voting no.”

State Rep. Norm Thurston, R-Provo, said he supported regulating media access to the House floor and said it would stop reporters’ “gotcha approach” when requesting interviews with lawmakers.

“I have seen many examples of media, waiting until the end of floor time and coming onto the House floor while you’re at your desk and ... leaning up on your desk and saying, ‘Can I ask you a question?’ with a with a tape recorder in your face,” Thurston said. “If a media person wants to talk to you, they could have the decency to call your cellphone and schedule a time to tell you what they want to talk about, which is consistent with their code of ethics, so that you have time to prepare what it is that you’re going to talk about.”

In prior sessions, journalists have traditionally requested interviews with lawmakers during recess inside the statehouse chamber to reach a lawmaker before they left for another meeting or committee room.

Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, said he was concerned the rules resolution would limit transparency.

“I want to make sure that our media when they’re acting — especially as they almost always do in my perception — with integrity and honesty, are able to help us do our jobs well,” he said. “We can’t effectively act as legislators in the state of Utah without the things that we’re doing here being reported to the people of the state of Utah, honestly and with integrity. And when I asked myself if this rule change on those particular lines moves us in that direction, I just don’t feel that we’re going in the right direction on that.”

State Rep. Steve Handy, R-Layton, who used to work in the newspaper marketing business, also opposed the rules resolution.

“I think their job is critical to what we’re doing here in the legislature. There must be sunshine, as much as we can give,” he said. “I know that we’re just trying to adjust the rules and put this in writing, but I think the optics are terrible. I really think they’re terrible.”

Dunnigan noted that credentialed reporters still have a designated media space in the House chamber, which is located in the gallery on the second floor.

“We’re not trying to limit the media. They’re a valuable partner. We need them. We appreciate them and we want them to have continued access. But these are the nonpublic areas. They just have to get permission from the speaker or the designee,” he said.

This year, other Republican-controlled statehouses in Iowa and Kansas have also taken steps to limit media access to lawmakers.