Limitations on press access inside the New York State Assembly implemented during the pandemic will continue this legislative session, a spokesman for the Speaker confirmed on Jan. 23, 2023.
In an email to Zach Williams, president of the New York State Legislative Correspondents Association, Press Secretary Michael Whyland said that the rules for the lower house of the legislature were not changing.
During the first months of the pandemic, sweeping health and safety measures were put in place limiting how many people — including lawmakers — could enter the statehouse and where they could go. Journalists covering the Assembly were limited to a few chairs in the well of the chamber and at the back of the room, and were barred from directly approaching lawmakers at their desks. Reporters were also no longer permitted in the area behind the dias to access the speaker’s office, conference rooms and a lounge.
Whyland wrote that the area behind the dias is still by appointment only.
Williams, who is also the New York Post’s Albany bureau chief, told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker that when COVID-19 restrictions for the statehouse began to expire, the LCA initiated conversations about lifting the media access limitations as well.
“Once they stopped having the mask restriction and capacity restrictions, reporters like myself started raising questions about why we could not enter and move around the chamber and adjacent areas like we did before coronavirus struck New York,” Williams said.
Tom Precious, who covered the New York State legislature for more than 30 years before retiring in 2022, told the Tracker via email that in the years before the pandemic, members of the press were able to move around the chamber with relative ease.
“It used to be that reporters could walk down onto the floor during session and go right up to a lawmaker’s desk to ask them a question,” Precious said. “I spent many, many hours of my time at the Capitol walking that back hallway in order to grab lawmakers for comments or background perspectives on an issue.”
After receiving the email confirming that limits on media access would continue, Williams sent a letter on Feb. 2 on behalf of the LCA calling on Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie to restore the pre-pandemic policies.
“Decades of experience proved that order can be maintained in the chamber while Capitol reporters do their jobs of informing the public,” Williams wrote. “The Assembly now aims to bar the press in your name from anywhere except the back of the chamber and a few chairs in the well of the floor. Only favored reporters would be allowed anywhere behind the chamber. The LCA has voted to reject such conditions. We need more than that to do our jobs.”
Williams confirmed to the Tracker on Feb. 9 that he had not received an official response to his letter.
Whyland, the press secretary, did not respond to requests for comment from the Tracker. He wrote on Twitter that press access to the Assembly is both the same as it was pre-pandemic and is the same as access to the Senate.
Reporter Keshia Clukey, an LCA member who has covered the statehouse for seven years, told the Tracker that press access has never been the same in both chambers due to differences in size and formality.
“The Senate and Assembly have always had very different rules. The Senate hasn’t been quite as accessible as the Assembly,” Clukey said. “But the Assembly has always been the ‘People’s House.’”
She added that she’s particularly concerned about the strict access heading into the budgeting process in March, when many decisions are made behind the scenes.
“That lack of transparency in the budget process makes this fight to have the access that we've always had even more important,” Clukey said.