Senate committee moves forward with rule to limit press access at Capitol

Cameras line the dais as Sen. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake
City, speaks during a Senate Business and Labor Committee meeting
at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday. A resolution to limit media access in the Senate passed its initial hearing on Wednesday.

Cameras line the dais as Sen. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, speaks during a Senate Business and Labor Committee meeting at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday. A resolution to limit media access in the Senate passed its initial hearing on Wednesday. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News)


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SALT LAKE CITY — A rules resolution to limit media access in the Utah Senate passed its initial hearing on Wednesday, despite concerns from media members that it would make it more difficult to report on Capitol Hill.

SR1, sponsored by Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, stipulates that news media are only allowed access to the Senate floor, hallways and lounge if they have permission from a Senate media designee and must "promptly exit the designated area after completing the specific interview."

It would also require that photographers obtain permission from a committee chairperson before being allowed to stand behind the dais in order to photograph witnesses or public commenters who are addressing the committee.

Traditionally, members of the news media have been allowed on the floor of both the House and Senate in order to ask questions of lawmakers. Although some areas are not open to the public, credentialed journalists have previously been allowed access. That changed with COVID-19 — when the Legislature implemented masking and testing requirements, they also limited access to the floor.

While testing and masks are no longer required, the media access rule is now one Senate vote away from being permanent.

The House and Senate hold regular press conferences when the Legislature is in session, but some journalists have expressed concern that limiting access for the media outside of press briefings would make it harder for the public to see what their elected officials are doing.

Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, sponsor of SR1,
speaks during a Senate Business and Labor Committee meeting at the
Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday.
Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, sponsor of SR1, speaks during a Senate Business and Labor Committee meeting at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday. (Photo: Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

During Wednesday's Senate Business and Labor Committee hearing on the bill, McKell emphasized that the bill isn't an attempt to restrict media members from doing their job, saying they are "always welcome in our committee rooms."

Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, who chairs the committee, said the issue is a matter of security for lawmakers. While he said he has only seen two instances of media members disrupting the work of a committee during his two decades on the Hill, he believes the resolution would give leaders the ability to take steps if needed.

"We regularly legislate to the exception," he said. "Just as reporters regularly report the exception that makes headlines. They don't report the run of the mill. This doesn't address the average professional member of the media ... but it gives the chair the authority to manage the committee room if they need to."

Senators cited the Jan. 6 insurrection and recent committee hearings that have drawn crowds driven by misinformation as examples of potential threats to lawmakers.

"I can pinch myself every day that I get to work in the peoples' house ... I'm very cognizant of that fact," said Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross. "And at the same time, I just want to revisit the point ... that the barriers of civility and discourse that have been respected in this state — in this country — for years ... are changing, and they're changing rapidly."

In the end, SR1 passed committee easily — Sen. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, was the only one in opposition — but the discussion was anything but smooth. In addition to debating who qualifies as a journalist, senators seemed eager to use the hearing as an opportunity to air their grievances with the media in general.

"Would you agree with the statement that, more and more, journalism is taking a position on issues and less and less reporting? What's going on?" Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, asked KUTV's news director Mike Friedrich.

"The way I run my newsroom — and the people who work for me — we just report the news," Friedrich said. "We report what's going on in our communities and that is our goal, that is our objective every day."

KUTV News Director Mike Friedrich speaks in opposition
to SR1 during a Senate Business and Labor Committee meeting at the
Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday.
KUTV News Director Mike Friedrich speaks in opposition to SR1 during a Senate Business and Labor Committee meeting at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday. (Photo: Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

"At what point is a journalist a journalist, and at what point is someone a member of the public who wants to harass and cause problems in public meetings? Because that's the problem that we're having," McCay continued.

McCay and Bramble asked repeatedly if media thought that they — and members of the public at large — should be allowed to approach lawmakers in restrooms or walk into their private offices, though the resolution made no mention of office space or restrooms.


At what point is a journalist a journalist, and at what point is someone a member of the public who wants to harass and cause problems in public meetings? Because that's the problem that we're having,

–Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton


"Are you suggesting that the media should have the right to walk into any one of our offices at any time without announcing because they're the media?" Bramble asked.

Friedrich said he didn't mean to imply that journalists should have free reign over the Capitol building, but said "If this is the peoples' house, then it's open to the people."

"So bathrooms aren't safe?" McCay said as Friedrich left the microphone.

Why the press is concerned with access

Media members were concerned with the resolution for two primary reasons — the first being that it could prevent photographers and videographers from fully recording testimony in committee hearings, and the second that it would make it difficult to ask simple questions of lawmakers on the Senate floor.

Giving videographers access to the areas behind the dais in committee rooms is about more than finding an artistic camera angle, it's about "seeing the person presenting and the lawmaker who is presenting their bill," according to FOX 13's Ben Winslow.

Committee members are usually seated around the dais, while the person presenting sits in front facing them. Livestream video is usually available for the public on the Legislature's website, but broadcasters argued that it often focuses only on the committee members and not on those presenting or sharing public comment.

McCay said he worries about confidentiality issues when there are cameras looking over the shoulders of lawmakers during hearings.

"I'm a lawyer, I can't deal with confidential matters from a client's perspective while you are behind the dais," he said.

Becky Bruce, news director for KSL NewsRadio, pointed to McCay's comments and said she had "concerns with legislators doing personal work during committee time," even if they're serving part-time.

"It raises questions that I don't think you intend for this measure to raise," Bruce said of the resolution. "As an example, a natural question many members of the public may have is 'What do you have to hide?' And the answer may be that you have nothing to hide, but you're giving off a perception by restricting access."

Winslow also argued that the rule could prove to be more disruptive to legislative business if journalists need to interrupt a hearing in order to get permission to set up cameras in a particular spot.

The provision that requires permission in order to be on the Senate floor or in the hallways is one that primarily impacts print or web media.

"I believe that you are working to make people's lives better," Salt Lake Tribune Editor Lauren Gustus told the committee. "And I believe that as the media, we are trying to help people understand what the impacts of each of these bills are."

Gustus said she was concerned with the provision to limit floor access without permission and asked the committee to be willing to engage in a "two-way dialogue" to resolve the issues.

Katie McKellar, an assistant editor and political reporter for the Deseret News, spoke in opposition of the rule, explaining how it could make it nearly impossible for reporters to clear the required hurdles in time to talk to lawmakers.

"I hear a lot up here in conversations with lawmakers that your goal is to pass good public policy. ... You can't make good policy without a healthy, free flow of information," she told the committee.


We're not interested in 'gotcha' journalism. We are interested in unfiltered, in-person access to lawmakers so we can ask quick, often clarifying questions. Free flow of information is crucial to getting the story right — and that's what we value most.

–Katie McKellar, Deseret News


"We all know how hectic the session can get. ... When the Senate gets this fast paced there may not be time to jump through those additional hoops to get permission," she said.

Often reporters are looking for simple, clarifying answers that aren't worth setting up a one-on-one interview or waiting until a press conference to ask about.

"We're not interested in 'gotcha' journalism," McKellar said. "We are interested in unfiltered, in-person access to lawmakers so we can ask quick, often clarifying questions. Free flow of information is crucial to getting the story right — and that's what we value most."

What's next?

SR1 would not apply to the House and would go into effect as soon as it is passed by the complete Senate. While opposed to reconsidering this rule change, many senators — including the committee chairman — expressed support for creating press corps representation to handle issues of credentials and mediate disputes between lawmakers and the press.

"I would be willing to engage in that discussion with other legislators and see if we couldn't come forward with that kind of a proposal in the feature," Bramble said. "But in the meantime, I think it's important that we have ... some boundaries, some rules that everyone understands, because we've had some unfortunate situations."

"I think, honestly, our reporters really do a good job — even though I, you know, speak about being worried about what's on my computer — they do a good job of really trying to show us in a less bad light than maybe we make ourselves look every once in a while," McCay said, indicating his support for a press corps in the future.

Media members also expressed support for such a move.

"I do believe that this could resolve a significant amount of issues in the future without resulting in a Senate committee hearing," Winslow said.

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