U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

Iowa blogger denied press access to Statehouse

Incident Details

Date of Incident
January 10, 2019
Location
Des Moines, Iowa
Case number
4:24-cv-00021
Case Status
Ongoing
Type of case
Civil

Denial of Access

Government agency or public official involved
Courtesy Laura Belin

Political blogger Laura Belin has been repeatedly denied press access to the Iowa Statehouse. "I don’t think it’s constitutional for them to exclude me because they don’t like the opinions on my website,” Belin said.

— Courtesy Laura Belin
January 24, 2024 - Update

Iowa reporter wins press credentials after filing suit

Iowa reporter Laura Belin was granted press credentials for the Iowa House of Representatives on Jan. 24, 2024, days after filing a civil suit against the chief clerk, who had withheld them from her for years, according to the Institute for Free Speech, which filed the suit on Belin’s behalf.

Belin, who runs the independent news site Bleeding Heartland and is the statehouse reporter for community radio station KHOI-FM, had been denied credentials or access to press work areas at the Iowa House of Representatives since early 2019.

Officials cited different reasons for each denial, none of which aligned with written House policies. Belin’s suit argued that the denials were punishment for her personal political views, which differ from those of the chief clerk or the Republican-controlled House.

“I hope this victory for press freedom will make any public official reluctant to deny access to reporters, either as retaliation for tough coverage or because of political bias,” Belin said.

IFS Senior Attorney Chip Miller indicated the case would continue until Belin’s legal team had resolved a few questions with the state, an IFS representative told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker.

House Clerk Meghan Nelson did not respond to requests for comment from the Tracker.

January 19, 2024 - Update

Reporter sues Iowa House clerk after being denied press credentials

Iowa reporter Laura Belin sued the chief clerk of the Iowa House of Representatives on Jan. 19, 2024, for denying her press credentials, according to the Institute for Free Speech, which filed the suit in federal court on Belin’s behalf.

Belin runs the independent news site Bleeding Heartland and is the statehouse reporter for KHOI-FM, a nonprofit radio station that covers central Iowa. She has been denied credentials or access to press work areas at the Iowa House of Representatives since early 2019. Officials have cited different reasons for each denial, none of which align with written House policies.

“Because of how the House Chief Clerk has applied her credentialing policy, I am unable to cover legislative proceedings on equal footing with my peers in the statehouse press corps,” Belin said.

The suit argues that because Belin’s personal political views differ from those of the chief clerk or the Republican-controlled House, the denials have been “punishment for Belin’s refusal to report from a sanctioned point of view,” and so violate her First Amendment rights.

“Refusing to credential journalists for arbitrary reasons—or because lawmakers may not like tough coverage or her point of view—is censorship, period,” said Attorney Courtney Corbello of the Institute for Free Speech.

January 10, 2019

A political blogger in Iowa has been denied press access to the Iowa Legislature two years in a row, despite the lack of a clear policy that would disqualify her.

Laura Belin, who runs the independent news site Bleeding Heartland, covers Iowa politics and has been critical of the Republican-led House and Senate. Belin told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker that she first sought information about press credentials in the Iowa House of Representatives in early 2019. Since then, officials have denied her requests for credentials or access to press work areas multiple times, each time citing different reasons that did not align with written policies in place. Both the House and the Senate have also changed press qualification criteria since her first application.

When Belin first sought credentials in the House, the clerk at the time, Carmine Boal, told her by email on Jan. 3, 2019, that credentials “are not issued to members of the public.”

Boal referenced Iowa House rules, which did not elaborate on qualifications for the press. She also told Belin the House consulted U.S. congressional press gallery rules, which would not appear to disqualify Belin. Boal never responded to multiple requests for further explanation from Belin.

Boal stood by the denial of Belin’s credentials in a statement to The Associated Press but did not elaborate on why she did not meet the chamber’s rules that restricted access to the press box to “representatives of the press, radio, and television.”

After the Iowa Freedom of Information Council wrote to Boal expressing concerns about Belin’s rejection, Boal responded on Feb. 5 that House rules “do not offer a definition” of members of the media, and again pointed to congressional rules. In a copy of the response letter provided to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, she wrote that online outlets are not excluded and said that credentials are not denied based on content. However, she also said that the House has not “credentialed any ‘non-traditional media’ since 2015,” a policy that did not appear in writing.

Belin also applied for access to desks reserved for members of the press in the Iowa Senate in January 2019. She was initially told that she could access vacant spaces on day passes. However, Belin said she was never issued a day pass, even when the desks were not in use.

Both the House and the Senate updated their press policies after Belin’s initial inquiries, according to the AP. The House updated its policy in February 2019 to include requirements that credentialed press be “bona fide correspondents of repute” and a “paid correspondent.” Bleeding Heartland is editorially independent and a registered business. Belin, as its owner, is entitled to any proceeds.

Belin applied for press credentials for the 2020 legislative session. She was denied credentials from the House on Jan. 10, 2020. House Clerk Meghan Nelson told her in an email that the House does not credential “outlets that are nontraditional/independent in nature.” This requirement is not included in the Iowa House press policy.

The Senate abolished media credentials and adopted a new reserved work space policy, in place for the 2020 legislative session, which guides access to desks in the Senate chamber reserved for media and Senate staff.

On Jan. 10, Belin received an email from Secretary of the Senate Charlie Smithson notifying her that “it has been determined that you do not meet the criteria to be a ‘member of the media’” under the Senate’s work space policy. Correspondence provided by Belin shows that Smithson did not respond to her multiple requests for further explanation of what criteria she did not meet under the policy.

Belin told the Tracker that press freedom protections are not just for journalists pulling a full-time salary. She suspects she was denied access because her approach differs from the “traditional objectivity stance.”

“I don’t think it’s constitutional for them to exclude me because they don’t like the opinions on my website,” Belin said.

Iowa House and Senate officials did not respond to requests for comment.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker catalogues press freedom violations in the United States. Email tips to [email protected].