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.