PHOENIX — The gallery of the Arizona House of Representatives had a new set of occupants as lawmakers convened for their debate: journalists.
Reporters who normally have access to the floor of the House to interview lawmakers and ask questions about important legislation had those privileges revoked after leadership imposed new security policies that restrict access for journalists who refuse to submit to extensive background checks. News organizations including The Associated Press, Arizona Republic and Arizona Capitol Times all refused to comply, and lost access to the floor.
The House session then took on an unusual feel as the journalists in the gallery became a part of the story and Democrats and Republicans sparred over the new rules for more than an hour, debating everything from the First Amendment to security to gun violence. Democrats said it was an attack on the freedom of press, but Republicans said it was a prudent security measure in the wake of protests at the capitol last week over long voting lines.
Democrats criticized House leaders for imposing new security requirements for reporters while at the same time loosening restrictions to let lawmakers carry guns on the House floor. That set off debate about gun violence.
“I think we need to acknowledge we are a soft target – we have had a congresswoman shot,” said Rep. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, referring to the shooting of former Rep. Gabby Giffords. “I am grateful that we have the ability and I think the speaker for allowing us to carry.”
The new security rules for journalists were announced Monday by the office of House Speaker David Gowan, a Republican.
They initially required all journalists routinely covering the chamber to immediately allow the House staff to search for any criminal or civil cases, plus employer or any other records. The employer-records provision was removed, but the form journalists are being asked to sign still requires a blanket waiver of rights to search for criminal, civil or other public records along with information about where journalists live.
Reporters who routinely cover the House receive credentials and get access to the chamber’s floor through an electronic key card, and for decades there have been desks for them to do their work. When the House isn’t in session, reporters can talk to lawmakers and ask them questions. It’s a key method for journalists who cover the House to get to know and understand the positions of lawmakers in both major parties.
The Senate allows floor access for reporters, and it plans no changes to its policies, President Andy Biggs said Wednesday.
“We find this targeted request for information inappropriate,” said Brian Carovillano, AP vice president, U.S. News. “These reporters are known to lawmakers.
“The Associated Press, which pushes for government access nationwide, also questions the timing of this request, following an investigation into state lawmaker activities. We call on lawmakers to call off this hunt to ensure full and open access to state government.”
Gowan changed the rules after the Arizona Capitol Times reported two months ago that the lawmaker was using a state vehicle and collecting per diems while traveling the state to campaign for Congress. Gowan repaid the state more than $12,000 after the report and took the unusual step of asking the Arizona attorney general to investigate whether he broke the law.
The House speaker denied his decision had anything to do with negative stories reporters have written. He said he wasn’t denying access.
Gowan said the changes were made because of security concerns after a man was arrested in the gallery last week for shouting during raucous protests over the long lines in the Arizona presidential primary. He contends the new security measures don’t specifically target the press.
“I have not restricted your access to come in. We need to be able to know who comes on our floor,” Gowan said Wednesday. “My policy is for non-employees. You saw what happened up in the gallery. It has everything to do with the security of my members here. In fact, my members are asking for more security.”
The security protocols go beyond what many other statehouses use in allowing access to the capitols, but they come at a time when it is becoming increasingly difficult for journalists to do their jobs in covering state government.
An Associated Press review of open-government policies last month found that many state legislatures allow closed-door caucus meetings in which a majority of lawmakers discuss policy positions before public debates. Others have restrictions on taking photos and videos of legislative proceedings.
The Arizona Legislature has been somewhat of a bright spot, with open caucuses, floor access for photographers, and requirements for conflict disclosures.
Gowan also invoked the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in arguing that conducting background checks on reporters was a necessary tool to prevent unforeseen violence.
“Lots of things happen to a lot of people, and we want to make sure that our members are secure. I don’t understand the problem with that.”
The policy bars anyone convicted of a felony in the past 10 years or misdemeanors within five years.