Virginia, Missouri limit media access at state Capitols

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Posted: Jan 15, 2016 4:53 PM
Virginia, Missouri limit media access at state Capitols

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — For decades, reporters in Virginia have been allowed to sit on the Senate floor so they could fully see the arm-twisting and other interactions between lawmakers. That suddenly changed this week: Media arrived to find their work tables removed, with security guards telling them they would be relegated to an upstairs visitors' gallery.

That gallery offers only a partial view of what's happening, farther away from the conversations that typically take place. Routine access has been blocked in a similar manner in Missouri, and now media groups are condemning the moves and asking lawmakers to reconsider.

The new Virginia rules were approved by the Senate's Republican majority, led by top-ranking Sen. Tommy Norment. He has steadfastly declined to say what prompted the new rules.

Norment has had a frosty relationship with the press for years, and he has been the subject of numerous articles looking at his finances and some of his government-related side jobs. But those relationships chilled even more last year when several media outlets publicized details of an affair Norment had with a lobbyist. Those details were made public when one of Norment's former law clients was convicted of trying to blackmail Norment.

The new rules have put some of Norment's GOP colleagues in a tight spot. Republican senators laughed off questions about Norment's rule change and generally declined comment.

"Well he's our leader, and you know, you gotta lead from the front and not from the back," said Sen. Bill Stanley.

Virginia is the birthplace of the constitutional right to a free press, dating to the 1776 Virginia Declaration of Rights.

"There really is some irony in the fact that a politician in the state of Virginia is limiting press access," said New Mexico State University Associate Professor Roger P. Mellen, a scholar on the origins of free press in Virginia.

Though many states allow it, there is no constitutional guarantee that the media have access to the floor of legislative chambers, which are entitled to set their own rules, said Brett Johnson, an assistant professor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism who specializes in First Amendment theory.

But "if the letter of the First Amendment isn't being violated here, certainly the spirit of the First Amendment is," Johnson said.

The Missouri Senate voted 26-4 last week to change its rules that for decades have allowed reporters to work from a 10-seat table on the Senate floor. Reporters will be moved by March 29 to a renovated visitors' gallery overlooking the chamber, where large columns obstruct a clear view.

Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard, a Republican, said he initiated the move because some reporters "have violated their code of ethics" in recent years by tweeting private discussions they overheard on the Senate floor.

"I will not stand for that," Richard told colleagues without citing any specific examples, "so they will not be on the floor of the Senate anymore."

Paul Fletcher, president of the Society of Professional Journalists and publisher of Virginia Lawyers Weekly, said the moves will make it harder for media in Missouri and Virginia to keep track of who's speaking and what's happening on the Senate floor.

"It sends a message that the press isn't really welcome," Fletcher said. He added: "In both instances, it sounds like politicians that are unhappy with the press are finding a way to kind of poke reporters and journalists, and I think that's unfortunate."

Media groups have issued statements calling on lawmakers to reconsider their moves and allow reporters to continue reporting from the floors of both senates.

"The question here is not so much access vs. not access, but it's quality of access and what does the public lose out by the press not having this higher quality of access?" Johnson said.

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Lieb reported from Jefferson City, Missouri.