U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

Utah Senate becomes third state legislature this year to limit journalists’ access

Incident Details

Date of Incident
February 15, 2022
Targets
Media

Denial of Access

Politicians or Public Figures Involved
February 28, 2022 - Update

Utah House revises procedures around media access

The Utah House of Representatives’ Rules Committee unanimously voted in favor of modifications to rules dictating media access to the chamber floor on Feb. 28, 2022. The policy passed almost exactly two weeks after the Utah Senate pushed through a rule change limiting press access to the Senate chamber, halls, lounge and committee rooms.

As with the Senate policy, the House resolution requires credentialed journalists to receive approval before entering the House floor to interview a legislator, according to The Salt Lake Tribune. However, after a revision the House resolution preserves journalists’ access to committee rooms.

The bill’s sponsor, Republican Rep. James Dunnigan, said during a committee hearing on the resolution that he sought the input from the press before moving forward with the proposed rules. Dunnigan also voiced his support for the creation of a Capitol Press Corps to participate in discussions around access and to control the credentialing process.

FOX 13 reporter Ben Winslow, who spoke in support of the bill during the public comment section of the hearing, told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker the House’s rules are “fairly friendly” toward the media.

“After a drafting issue, they fixed a misplaced sentence that tried to kick us out of committee rooms entirely (it was in error) and actually gave us a little more access than we had before,” Winslow said via email.

February 15, 2022

Republican leaders in the Utah State Senate pushed through a rule change limiting press access to the chamber, halls, lounge and committee rooms on Feb. 15, 2022, according to The Salt Lake Tribune.

The rule change requires that journalists receive permission from a “Senate media designee” in order to have access to the Senate floor and adjacent hallways to conduct a specific interview and be escorted out of the area when it is completed. Journalists also must ask permission from the committee chair to film or take pictures from behind the dias. The resolution passed 17 to 5, the Tribune reported.

Traditionally, members of the press were allowed on the floor of both the House and Senate, as well as in some areas that are not open to the public, according to Deseret News. The policies changed during the coronavirus pandemic and the Senate vote made some of the restrictions permanent.

FOX 13 reporter Ben Winslow told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker via email that there had been some rumblings that lawmakers were upset with one or more reporters for eavesdropping on conversations and “skulking” around the chamber.

“Looking back over the years, this may have been building with a few complaints about reporters going into areas lawmakers felt they shouldn’t be in, and it’s not the first time we’ve had to challenge rules limiting press access,” Winslow wrote. “In COVID, access to the chambers unescorted was completely cut off and I don’t see it coming back.”

Sen. Mike McKell, the sponsor of the measure, cited security concerns as the primary concern behind the policy shift, according to the Tribune, though members of the press are required to submit to yearly background checks as part of the credentialing process.

McKell also dismissed concerns that the change limits the media’s access, citing the Senate’s daily media availability.

“The Senate has a long-standing tradition of holding media availability. That’s not going to change. That happens every single day after floor time,” McKell told the Tribune. According to the newspaper, senators have spent an average of about 13 minutes taking questions during such sessions during the 2022 legislative session.

McKell did not respond to requests for further comment.

According to the Tribune, other Senate Republicans noted that committee meetings and floor debates are now routinely livestreamed, a measure put in place during the pandemic.

The policy change was met with criticism from local journalists and national press freedom organizations, particularly as Republican legislators in both Iowa and Kansas announced similar policy shifts limiting press access to the senate floor in 2022.

“Given that it can be difficult to locate any particular member of the Senate, rushing as they are between the floor, committee hearings and offices, this access has been crucial to journalists in their efforts to give their audience a full picture of what’s happening,” the Tribune’s Editorial Board wrote. “Removing it can only serve to help senators avoid public scrutiny.”

Winslow told the Tracker he spoke against the bill during the public comment period, highlighting that often he needs only 30 seconds to get clarification on a bill and that the rule is impractical.

“We sometimes roll into a committee hearing mid-way through a bill and how do I get the permission of the committee chair without interrupting everything?” Winslow wrote. “One senator said there was a logic to my argument there. They still voted to pass the rule.”

Winslow did note that, despite the new rules, none of his station’s photographers have been prevented from filming from locations they have used in the past.

“One committee chair saw us walk into his hearing mid-meeting and he stood up and walked over to motion the photographer up, which is a really nice sign that they still want us there,” Winslow wrote. He added that the policy change has built up momentum for formalizing a Capitol press corps that may ultimately lead to improved access and credentialing.

Bridger Beal-Cvetko, a reporter at Salt Lake City-based newspaper The Deseret News, said he also hasn’t experienced any changes to access, but that he is concerned that the new rule paves a path for blocking access down the line.

“The worry that a lot of people have is that it’s great that they allow access most of the time, but if there’s a controversial bill or an unpopular discussion that’s happening they could decide not to give the same level of access, and that’s concerning to a lot of people,” Beal-Cvetko told the Tracker.

The Associated Press reported that the rule changes are now advancing through the Utah House.

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