Republican leaders in the Kansas Senate issued new rules moving journalists off the Senate floor and into a gallery, overturning a longstanding practice.
Mike Pirner, the director of communications for Kansas Senate President Ty Masterson, sent the new media rules to reporters on Jan. 4, 2022. A copy of the guidelines, which asks reporters to only use the specific designated section of the gallery, was shared with the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker.
The email also stated that when the public gallery is full they will provide floor access to journalists, and that photographers and videographers may seek permission for floor access during a session.
Kansas Reflector reporter Tim Carpenter, who has covered the statehouse for 15 years, said he was covering the second day of the new session from the Senate gallery when he saw the rules enacted. Pirner approached a pair of journalists working on the floor on Jan. 11 and told them they had to leave.
Carpenter said Pirner informed journalists that while they can come down to the floor when the Senate isn’t in session to take pictures or ask questions, they are not to disrupt senators completing their work and not to “loiter.”
Steve Morris, a Republican Kansas senator from 1993 to 2013, criticized the change in an op-ed for the Reflector, noting that reporters have had a place on the Senate floor for decades.
“There is no compelling reason to change the time-honored policy of allowing their close access to debates and other public workings of the Senate,” Morris wrote. “Senate leadership’s decision to move Kansas Statehouse reporters farther away from the action sends the wrong message and won’t help the people of Kansas better understand the discussions and votes.”
In its editorial, The Kansas City Star’s Editorial Board called the move “the latest front in GOP’s war on the press,” writing that journalists’ access to legislators in order to ask follow-up questions and fact-check is vital for accuracy and transparency.
When reached for comment via email, Pirner rejected claims that the shift limits journalists’ access to senators, noting that the only change is where reporters can be seated while the Senate is in session.
“Immediately when the gavel comes down, reporters may come on the floor and talk to any Senator they wish — and do so,” Pirner told the Tracker. “Any report that we are denying access or banning reporters from accessing Senators is completely inaccurate.”
According to Pirner, the Senate president moved the designated area for reporters due to spacing concerns and the rise in digital publications. The Iowa Senate Republicans offered similar reasoning when they moved journalists from the Senate floor to a gallery above this legislative session.
In the Kansas Senate, Pirner said, there are six seats for journalists in the designated gallery; the floor held five.
Carpenter dismissed Pirner’s arguments of overcrowding as “laughable,” noting that in the heyday of the Star and Wichita Eagle each had three or four journalists covering the statehouse; nowadays, he said, a single reporter represents both news outlets.
“There’s nothing that they can do that stops me from covering the statehouse as I see fit,” Carpenter said. But, he worries about the possible escalation of restrictions that bar public scrutiny and enable corruption.
“That’s the danger of taking this ‘stay off the Senate floor’ thing to the next level and the next level and the next level,” Carpenter said. “Then you have a very serious problem because bad public policy is going to be made.”