A proposed rule change in the Utah House of Representatives appears to be an attempt to crack down on press access to lawmakers and set up a kind of safe space away from the media.
HR4, sponsored by Rep. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, prohibits members of the media from accessing the House floor 45 minutes prior to a scheduled floor session. Right now, journalists can speak with legislators at their desk before to the beginning of a floor session in both the House and the Senate. The change specifies that journalists must stay in the “area designated for the news media” during that time. Right now, that would be the press benches in the House gallery. The rule would not apply to the Utah Senate.
Dunnigan says he’s proposing the change after hearing from a few legislators, he won’t name names, that they would like to use use the period before a floor session to gather their thoughts and prepare.
“Sometimes you need a little bit of time to prepare papers and thoughts before a floor debate,” says Dunnigan.
Lawmakers do have an office and other areas, such as the House lounge where they can get away from the prying eyes of the media. Dunnigan concedes that point but says the House desk is a sort of “home base” during the session for lawmakers.
“A lot of time and work is done at our desks,” he says. “Sometimes it’s helpful to be able to work undistracted.
There are back hallways throughout the capitol and a tunnel leading from the main structure to the House office building that is not accessible to the public. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that House members could entirely sidestep the media using those back areas.
Dunnigan pushes back against the notion that they’re trying to cut down on access to legislators, saying that’s not the intent of the change.
“I still think you have quite a bit of access,” he says. “Journalists can still talk to us after the floor session is over. They can stop us in the hallways. There are quite a few areas we’re still available to the press.”
The change is a head-scratcher for some members of the media, as access to the House floor before floor time has been the norm for many years. In fact, UtahPolicy.com’s reporters routinely take advantage of floor access in both the House and Senate as part of their newsgathering efforts.
Dunnigan says the change is not meant to single out any particular reporters.
While clamping down on media access may appear to some as putting an unreasonable restriction on the press, Dunnigan says that’s not the case.
“That’s not our intent at all. We’re not trying to dodge the media,” he says.