As written, house bill would ban journalists from meetings open to public, Editorial Board writes

Both houses could instead work to form press corps that facilitate two-way conversations.

(Rachel Rydalch | The Salt Lake Tribune) House speaker Brad Wilson R-Kaysville, addressing the House of Representatives as the start of the 2022 legislative session begins at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022.

Members of the Utah House of Representatives are poised to pass a new set of rules that seem to have no purpose other than to make it more difficult for the press — and, through the press, the public — to know just what is going on in the halls of power.

Utahns - and voters - should understand that the press is not seeking special access or favors for private, personal benefit. Journalists are seeking the ability to do their job, sharing information with people who don’t have the time or resources to follow bills as they make their way through the system. And the people should let their lawmakers know that they expect the press to be able to do that job without undue interference.

The proposed new rules — contained in HR2 — follow a similar move recently by the Utah Senate, also designed to discourage journalists’ access to members of the Legislature and allow them to dodge questions about pending legislation.

But the House version, in its initial draft, appears to go even further in the attempt to fence off the press, banning reporters from entering, without special permission, the same committee hearings that are currently open to the public. A spokesperson for the Utah House on Friday said media access to House committee rooms would not change as “committee rooms are public spaces,” even as the text of the bill indicates as much.

It’s clear that members of both legislative bodies are concerned that the press is too forward in its attempts to keep a watch on how our laws are made.

Neither HR2 sponsor Rep. James Dunnigan nor any other lawmaker has justified the tightening of the rules (during a senate hearing, lawmakers said there have been 2 safety issues in 22 years). They’ve made no claim that any member of the Fourth Estate has harassed any member of the Legislature, disrupted the people’s business, blocked a fire exit, spilled their coffee, spread a virus, or done anything else that has sparked this year’s drive to make the eyes and ears of the people persona non grata on the House and Senate floors.

The practice in the Capitol has been unchanged for many years. While members are debating and voting during the once- or twice-daily period known as “floor time,” the press, like just about everyone else, is expected to keep its distance. Once the gavel goes down, however, the fact that most members of the House and Senate are gathered in one place, if only for a few minutes, makes it the best time to approach lawmakers for a few questions about how their legislative proposals came to be, who benefits, who pays, or why they may have voted a particular bill or amendment up or down.

Apparently, that’s now a little more accessible than legislative leaders want to be. The approved Senate rules and proposed House changes require reporters to first gain the approval of the House speaker, Senate president or their designee to get onto the House or Senate floor to get their questions answered. Or, at least, asked.

The Senate rule was sponsored by Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, and flew through that body’s Business and Labor Committee with the votes of Sens. Curtis Bramble, Kirk Cullimore, Don Ipson, Dan McCay, Scott Sandall, Todd Weiler and the only Democrat to support it, Karen Mayne. Sen. Gene Davis, a Democrat, was the only committee member to vote against it.

The rule later passed the whole Senate by a vote of 17-5. Sen. John Johnson was the only Republican to vote against the rule. Because the measure is a rule affecting only the Senate, it did not need to go to the House and will not be presented to Gov. Spencer Cox for signature or veto.

The additional limit included in the House version, requiring special permission for journalists to even enter the same committee rooms that are always open to the public, appears to either be an additional unwarranted attack on the press or a pretty serious drafting error.

Some legislative leaders have said that the press can get the access it needs at the regular, if often brief, times when leaders and a handful of other members make themselves available for questions. But those briefings are less a chance for the press and lawmakers to interact than they are a means for a few powerful legislators to control the flow of information.

As has been proposed in this space before, it is time for the press and the Legislature to work out a more formal arrangement by which an association of journalists will handle the accreditation of reporters and photographers who seek to cover the legislative session, negotiate the rules of behavior and terms of access and, if ever necessary, suspend or expel a member for disruptive or other bad behavior. A press corps, if you will.

As it stands, each house now has the power to suspend or cancel the press credentials of any person with no standard of behavior or process of appeal. That is not the way to do the people’s business.

It makes sense to have a clear set of rules for everyone’s conduct in the chambers of the Utah Legislature. But those rules should be drawn by all stakeholders and in a way that makes the flow of information from the Capitol to the people easier, not more difficult.