Arizona Legislature Demands Journalists Undergo Background Checks to Access House Floor
By Jamie Ross, Courthouse News Service
PHOENIX – The Arizona House on Thursday banned reporters from the floor who refused to consent to new extensive background checks for access.
Under a new rule implemented by Republican House Speaker David Gowan, reporters convicted of “a felony within the last 10 years or a misdemeanor within the last five years, excluding traffic arrests” would be denied “non-employee” badges. Non-employee badges are typically held by law enforcement officers and reporters.
Reporters already with badges were told to re-apply for access to the floor, where they work at designated tables, by consenting to the background checks or lose their access to the floor. Reporters would still be allowed to work from the House, but would be required to remain in the upstairs public gallery.
The rule allows for some exceptions, as long as the conviction “did not involve physical violence or assault or the threat of physical violence or assault, kidnapping, any sex offense, trespass, burglary, arson, theft, robbery, fraud, stalking, extortion, bribery, eavesdropping, or any class 1-4 felony or its equivalent.”
The rule comes after the Arizona Capitol Times reported in January that Gowan racked up travel costs at the state’s expense. Gowan repaid the state more than $12,000, and is currently under investigation by the Arizona Attorney General’s Office.
The Capitol Times reporter who wrote the piece, Hank Stephenson, pleaded guilty in 2014 for misdemeanor second-degree criminal trespass following a bar fight in Wickenburg, Ariz.
“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,” Ginger Lamb, Capitol Times’ publisher, said in a statement. “I would hope this is coincidence, but past experience leads me to believe otherwise.”
According to a memo drafted to Gowan by Robert Ellman, an attorney for the House, the rule was necessary following “security concerns” after protestors disrupted House proceedings on March 29 following a special hearing by the special elections committee. One protester, Johnathan Mcrae, was arrested for resisting arrest, criminal trespass and aggravated assault on an officer when refused to leave the House gallery.
“Our protection here on this floor ... is paramount to me,” Gowan said during Thursday morning’s session. “There is nobody being stopped. We aren't telling anyone they can't be down here.”
Gowan allows members of the House to carry guns, despite a sign at the House that requires weapons to be checked at the door. Gowan removed a no weapons sign at the lawmakers’ entrance.
Twenty Democrats in the Arizona House of Representatives signed a letter Thursday to Gowan, asking him to reinstate the previous access to the floor for reporters.
“The press corps has been on the House floor for at least 30 years, and we should not change the access now,” the letter states. “This is the people's house, and we should not be putting up barriers to block the people’s ability to get information about the goings on in the House.”
Mark Finchem, a Tucson Republican, said the rule doesn’t ban media from the House and is a reasonable response to security concerns by a number of House members.
“If badge holders chose not to do the security check, they are not banned from the House of Representatives, they are welcome in all public areas,” Finchem said in a statement. “Members of the House who refuse to acknowledge the realities of the evolving security environment that we live in put us all in peril.”
Mark Cardenas (D-Phoenix) compared Gowan’s action to countries like North Korea and Iran that place bans on the media.
“Look upon the front of the room and be as bewildered as I was when I walked onto the floor this morning,” Cardenas said during Thursday’s session. “We are sorry to place hardships on the media.”
To Learn More:
Arizona Legislators Say Atheist’s Prayer Not Good Enough; Bring in Baptist Pastor (by Bob Christie, Associated Press)
Federal Court Questions whether Arizona Law Banning Mexican-American Studies Classes is Racially Motivated (by Steve Straehley, AllGov)
Arizona Voter ID Law Overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)
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