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Reporters removed from Kansas Senate floor, threatened with loss of press passes

June 4, 2019

Journalists were expelled from the Kansas Senate in Topeka after protesters disrupted a Medicaid expansion hearing on May 29, 2019. News reporters and photojournalists from multiple outlets were ordered to leave under threat of losing access to future Senate proceedings before the protesters were detained.

Senate President Susan Wagle attempted to return order to the Senate floor after nine Medicaid supporters began singing and chanting in the gallery above. After approximately 20 minutes, at which point many senators had left the chambers, Wagle chief of staff Harrison Hems and a Capitol police officer approached the assembled reporters and ordered them to leave the floor.

At least four journalists posted publicly about being asked to leave or had been recording in the Senate chambers until media were removed, including Alec Gartner of KSNT News, John Hanna of the Associated Press, Jonathan Shorman of The Kansas City Star and The Wichita Eagle and Sherman Smith of The Topeka Capital-Journal. When reporters refused, Hems threatened them and said that they were giving an audience to the protesters, the Topeka Capital-Journal reported.

“I’m just telling you it’s a privilege to have a press pass, to be on the floor, to document,” Hems said. “When I’m trying to get people out to restore order to the chamber so we can conduct our business and you guys just sit there with a camera in their face and give them an audience, that makes my job incredibly difficult. I’m not trying to silence the press.”

Hems was reportedly acting at the direction of Wagle, and the journalists acquiesced to leaving the floor.

Once they were outside, the chamber doors were locked and police escorted protesters out of the gallery. At least one demonstrator received a summons to appear in court on a possible misdemeanor charge of illegally interfering with public business, Patrol Lt. Stephen Larow told WRAL News.

Journalists were allowed to reenter the chambers after approximately 45 minutes, and the gallery was reopened once Wagle received notice that the protesters had left the Capitol building.

The Kansas Association of Broadcasters, the Kansas Sunshine Coalition and the Kansas Press Association filed a formal complaint with Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, arguing that the unprecedented removals of the journalists violated the Senate Chamber’s rules and the Kansas Open Meetings Act, which establishes that all committee and subcommittee meetings must be open, with few exceptions.

The Kansas City Star and The Wichita Eagle sent a letter to Wagle on May 29, calling the implied threats unconstitutional.

In an email to The Kansas City Star editorial board, communications director Shannon Golden said that the press was never denied access to government proceedings as the hearing was halted when the protesters began their demonstration. “Removal was purely due to safety reasons, and any other account is an embellished story,” Golden wrote.

Golden also repeated the threat made by Hems, writing that a press pass is a privilege, not a right.

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

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