Opinion: Utah lawmakers push ‘astounding’ number of bills blocking transparency

In the face of a growing Utah government secrecy, there are few checks and balances left except for independent journalism. Instead of pointing fingers, lawmakers could help.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Robert Spendlove, R-Sandy, left, and House Speaker Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, answer questions during their weekly House media availability at the Utah Capitol on Friday, Feb. 9, 2024.

Recently Utah House Speaker Mike Schultz decided to deliver a short lecture about journalism’s role in a democratic republic during a “media availability” with reporters at the Capitol. The exchange shows there is work to be done in helping the public and lawmakers better understand what the Constitution’s framers envisioned for the role of a free press.

Journalism is vital to democracy, but journalists and the public service they provide are under attack worldwide. The threats and harassment range from murder, personal attacks on social media, libel lawsuits and media restrictions under the guise of controlling misinformation. Animosity for journalists is driven by unfounded statements, such as those uttered by Schultz, that accuse the press of self-serving reporting to create “clickbait,” or pushing a “political narrative.”

In one such statement, Schultz said, “I saw an email that went out by The Salt Lake Tribune that said our job is to hold elected officials accountable. No, your job is to report the news accurately and let the people hold elected officials accountable.”

This is a distinction without a difference. Journalism is among the important vehicles through which the public holds elected officials accountable. For Speaker Shultz, there are better ways to improve legislature-media relationships and to encourage discussions about journalistic ethics than to deliver inflammatory statements.

First, politicians need to understand that the term “news media,” as used by some, is a myth. It’s absurd to suggest that every reporter, individually and collectively, is pursuing a political agenda.

Raising tough questions is at the heart of consequential journalism. A legislator of a much earlier age got it right. In the opening of the English Parliament in 1771, statesman Edmund Burke reportedly said there were “three estates in parliament; but, in the reporters’ gallery yonder, there [sits] a Fourth Estate more important far than they all.” So it is with Utah’s Fourth Estate.

While lawmakers might accuse journalists of malpractice, lawmakers continue to create the need for watchdog reporting. For example, two decades ago Utah’s Open and Public Meetings Act only had a handful of reasons to bar citizens from proceedings. Today, that law is packed with reasons to close meetings — resembling a proverbial block of Swiss cheese.

Likewise, over the last 30 years Utah’s lawmakers have been remaking the Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA) into a black hole. This session is particularly worrisome. Jeff Hunt, attorney and open government advocate, said, “I can’t remember a session with this many bills restricting access to public records and meetings. It is astounding.”

One bill would make pricey NIL contracts that college athletes sign off limits to the public. A second bill would make the amount of water a public golf course uses a state secret. Finally, another bill totally exempts a potentially powerful Water Development Council from Utah’s open meetings law.

In the face of a growing Utah government secrecy, there are few checks and balances left except for independent journalism. Instead of pointing fingers, lawmakers could help. A recent national survey suggests that open government laws could be improved by placing periodic reviews of all of the restrictions lawmakers have added to sunshine laws.

Furthermore, Utah’s Legislature, for better or worse, is controlled by a Republican supermajority.

Absent the self governance of political diversity, supermajorities will gravitate toward secrecy. For example, Utah’s GOP insists on holding its Senate and House caucuses in secret. Over the years, GOP lawmakers have shrugged off concerns about how supermajority closed-door meetings hinder transparency. It’s just “party business,” they say. It may be party business, but it’s not what’s best for democracy.

And here’s the rub — when controversial bills emerge from these secret caucuses, they are rushed through committees at such speeds that most Utahns barely have time to catch their breath, let alone express opinions to representatives. For example, both the DEI (diversity, inclusion and equity) bill and same-gender bathroom bill had hearings the first week of the session and less than two weeks later Gov. Spencer Cox signed them into law. That’s not enough time for rank-and-file Utahns to understand and react to such bills. Just imagine the hollering on Utah’s Capitol Hill if a federal lands bill impacting Utah passed Congress in only two weeks.

Utah government officials should shed antiquated traditions and harness new technology to focus on building greater public trust through increased participation and transparency. They should also respect how Utah journalists do their job and understand the myriad reasons — protected by the First Amendment — why Utahns rely on the Fourth Estate to hold government leaders accountable.

Joel Campbell

Joel Campbell teaches media ethics in the BYU School of Communications. He also serves on the board of KUER, NPR Utah and is a former public member of the Utah Supreme Court Ethics and Discipline Committee. The views expressed here are his own.

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