Arizona rule restricts reporters who reject background check

AP News
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Posted: Apr 07, 2016 7:48 PM
Arizona rule restricts reporters who reject background check

PHOENIX (AP) — The Arizona House of Representatives has imposed new security policies that restrict access for journalists who refuse to submit to extensive background checks, drawing objections from news organizations that the new rules stifle the democratic process.

The Associated Press and other media organizations objected to the sudden imposition of background checks for reporters well-known to the lawmakers at the state Capitol. As a result, they were denied access to the House floor on Thursday and covered the day's debate from the public gallery area.

Lawmakers argued over the new changes for the first hour of the session as Democrats blasted the policy and Republicans stood by their decision to require more rigorous security screening, putting journalists in the unusual position of becoming part of the legislative debate. The new rules were imposed by House Speaker David Gowan, a Republican.

The new security rules for journalists were announced Monday. 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 questions about important legislation and other matters. 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."

Democrats lashed out at Gowan for imposing new security for reporters while at the same time easing restrictions to let lawmakers carry guns on the House floor.

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 publisher of the Capitol Times suggested the changes had to do with its investigative journalism that has exposed Gowan to heightened scrutiny.

"The timing on this is peculiar," said Ginger Lamb, vice president and publisher of Arizona News Service and the Arizona Capitol Times. "This new protocol would have an adverse effect on a member of our reporting team that has written several stories that are critical of the Speaker's leadership. I would hope this is coincidence, but past experience leads me to believe otherwise."

The policy bars anyone convicted of a felony in the past 10 years or misdemeanors within five years.