Republican lawmakers in several states are scaling back access to government business, extending pandemic-era rules that restrict when journalists can report from the floors of state legislative chambers and, in effect, making it easier to dodge the press. 

As the public returns to the corridors of state capitols, new rules approved in Iowa last month and in Utah this week critically limit reporters’ access to lawmakers, sparking an outcry from media organizations and press advocates.

“It is critical that there is some accountability with respect to those who have tremendous power, such as you,” Lauren Gustus, the executive editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, told Utah lawmakers in a committee hearing last week, where she testified against such rules.

These rule changes limit when journalists can work on the floor of the legislature where lawmakers sit, making it easier for elected officials to avoid interacting with the press, even when they take up high-profile topics like election laws, taxes and abortion.

Rules governing where journalists can work vary across the nation’s 50 statehouses. Most allow credentialed reporters to observe from the chamber floors; some allow reporters to ask questions before or after proceedings; others require they remain in press boxes or alcoves separated from lawmakers, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In states that are now moving to change their procedures, lawmakers argue that creating formal rules allays security concerns and prevents bad actors from disrupting governance. Press advocates say the proposed rules make it more difficult for journalists to ask questions and impede the reporters’ ability to keep tabs on fast-paced statehouse action.

In Iowa, Republican leaders this year did not issue credentials to journalists to work at press benches on the state Senate floor as they had previously. They said the policy change addressed “confusion” because of changing media that now includes blogs and newsletters that identify themselves as the press.

In Utah, reporters are now being required to ask for permission each time they’d like to interview a lawmaker on the Senate floor or in certain adjacent hallways. There and in the Iowa Senate, reporters now must work from a gallery high above the chambers though they can still work from the floor in the House of Representatives. 

Under new rules passed through Utah’s Senate and advancing through the House, camera crews will be required to ask for permission to film in certain parts of committee rooms.

In a hearing on the rule last week, Utah lawmakers said daily press conferences and efforts to stream all proceedings online demonstrated their commitment to transparency. They said putting a clear rule on the books would help both lawmakers and the press know what’s allowed.

“The barriers of civility and discourse that have been respected in this state and this country for years and for decades are changing and they’re changing rapidly,” said Utah GOP Sen. Todd Weiler, who supported the rule change, adding that “if they are pushing the barriers, it is nice to have a rule in place.”

In Kansas, new rules from leaders in the state Senate relegate newspaper reporters to the chamber’s gallery, which has made it easier for senators to avoid reporters after sessions. In exceptional circumstances, like when the gallery is filled with other members of the public, journalists are allowed to report from the floor like the rules allowed before.

“Placing restrictions on journalists in the Senate chamber suggests there is something to hide, or that leadership is taking unwarranted and unnecessary retaliation against reporters,” former Kansas lawmaker Steve Morris wrote in an editorial in the Kansas Reflector.

Morris, who led Republicans in the Kansas Senate from 2005 to 2013, said that as a politician and a news consumer he saw the benefits of having journalists able to observe and report from a statehouse floor. When discussions draw considerable public interest, he said, people want to know how their lawmakers are reacting, which at times can mean body language like eye rolls or enthusiastic gestures.

“Reporters are our avenue to see what’s going on,” he said in an interview with The Associated Press.

“Especially when there’s something controversial,” he added. “The session adjourns and members skedaddle out of there rapidly so it’s hard for journalists to get to them, unlike when they’re on the floor they can immediately get to them.”

The new limits come in an environment of increasing attacks on the media and parallel new restrictions placed on journalists covering protests and courtroom proceedings.  They also come as states and cities loosen coronavirus restrictions that have returned restaurants, sporting events and offices to pre-pandemic capacity.

Parker Higgins, the advocacy director at the Freedom of The Press Foundation, said the ways transparency and access increased during the pandemic — for example, when  courtrooms allowed members of the public to hear and watch trials remotely — were being reversed.

After speaking with reporters in Kansas and Iowa, he said “most say it’s not impossible to do their jobs without floor access. But, in terms of doing your job quickly and effectively, you can’t get that from the public gallery.

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