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Media access restricted as historic impeachment trial begins

January 22, 2020

Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Michael Stenger implemented restrictions on media access in advance of the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump, which began on Jan. 16, 2020.

Roll Call reported that the planned restrictions were announced following months of discussions between the Capitol’s chief security officials, including Stenger and the Capitol Police chief, Senate Rules Chairman Roy Blunt and the Standing Committee of Correspondents, which represents the interests of credentialed congressional reporters.

The new restrictions exceed those that were in place during the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton in 1998, Roll Call reported, in part spurred by the hundreds of protestors that flooded the Capitol during the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh.

Sarah D. Wire, a congressional reporter for the Los Angeles Times and chair of the Standing Committee of Correspondents tweeted that the Committee suggested changes to the restrictions prior to them being finalized. “Our suggestions were rejected,” Wire wrote, “without an explanation of how the restrictions contribute to safety rather than simply limit coverage of the trial.”

In a letter to Senate majority and minority leaders sent on Jan. 14, the Committee expressed its strong opposition to the planned restrictions, which it said failed to take into account the effective policies and practices that are currently in place.

The Committee listed the restrictions as:

  • The placement of a magnetometer at the door of the chamber inside the Senate press gallery to do additional security sweeps of members of the press each time they exit or enter the chamber;
  • No electronics allowed within the Senate chamber;
  • Pens to hold reporters on the second floor of the building in the Ohio clock corridor prohibiting reporters from freely accessing Senators as they come to and from the chamber;
  • A single pool camera with no audio to cover the arrival of the articles of impeachment from the House;
  • Restrictions on reporters’ ability to walk with senators from the Senate subway to the back of six elevators.

When the formal procession to deliver of the articles of impeachment from the House to the Senate took place on Jan. 15, the restriction limiting coverage to a single pool camera was lifted, or at least not enforced.

Wire told CNN Business that when impeachment proceedings officially began the following day, several measures curtailing reporter access were implemented. Both a magnetometer — a type of metal detector — and a police officer were posted at the door of the Senate press gallery.

According to Wire and reporting from Roll Call, no written guidance concerning media restrictions was provided ahead of proceedings beginning in the Senate.

“Reporters [are] learning about the restrictions in real time,” Wire said.

On Jan. 16, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, joined by 57 news and press freedom organizations — including 16 U.S. Press Freedom Tracker partners — sent a letter to the Senate condemning the restrictions.

The letter reads in part: “Absent an articulable security rationale, Senate leaders and the Sergeant at Arms have an obligation to preserve and promote the public’s right to know. Reporters must have the ability to respond quickly to rapid developments and need reasonable access to lawmakers as they deliberate. The proposed restrictions on the use of electronic devices and on the ability of reporters to question lawmakers as they move about the Capitol, as well as the additional security screening, will hinder reporting without an obvious benefit for Senate security.”

RCFP wrote that the U.S. District Court in D.C. found that the Capitol is not a “public forum” under the First Amendment, and therefore lawmakers and Capitol security have some discretion to “reasonably” limit or restrict press access to the building. It wrote that any such restrictions, however, cannot be based on vague or arbitrary standards and must be enforced consistently.

Tweets from correspondents instead revealed that instructions were often contradictory, and that officers told journalists that they couldn’t clarify or confirm the rules. Several reporters also tweeted that their interviews with willing senators were interrupted by Capitol Police.

The Associated Press reported that senators were given cards by Capitol Police with phrases to alert police that they need assistance and fend off protesters or reporters, including “You are preventing me from doing my job” and “Please move out of my way.”

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

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