A victory for a free press on Utah’s Capitol Hill…for now

After hearing from a number of media reporters and editors, the Utah House Rules Committee changed a proposed 45-minute ban on reporters coming on to the House Chambers floor before sessions to just five minutes.

But HR4HR4, sponsored by Rep. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, could still be amended back to the 45-minute media ban – or even longer – when it is debated by the full 75-member House as lawmakers rush to finish their 2018 general session next week.

Dunnigan said some of his colleagues want pre-floor time to work over papers on their desks, organize their thoughts and get ready for the floor session.

But members of the media aren’t buying that.

To a person, the working press corps opposes HR4 and believes some GOP House members just don’t want the media asking them questions about their bills – and don’t want to have to hide out in other areas of the House, like hallways, lounges and kitchens to avoid reporters – who now can’t go into those places.

The committee heard from:

  • Ben Winslow, Fox 13 reporter.
  • Jennifer Napier-Pearce, editor of The Salt Lake Tribune.
  • Bryan Schott, managing editor, UtahPolicy.com.
  • Glen Mills, reporter for ABC 4 Utah.
  • Deseret News reporter McKenzie Romero, president of the Utah Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

All opposed Dunnigan’s proposal to ban reporters from the House floor for 45 minutes leading up to morning and afternoon floor time.

Schott said the cynical part of his brain – the great majority of it – wondered if House members banning the media means “they have something to hide.”

He said if a lawmaker didn’t want to talk to a reporter, he or she could just decline to be interviewed. “You can refuse to comment.”

Schott, who normally covers the Senate, said he spends some of his most productive time down on the floor just before President Wayne Niederhauser gavels the body into session; that’s when most of the senators are present and Schott can access them.

He said he usually has a list of three or four senators he wants to talk to each morning, and that pre-floor time – while short in nature – provides that opportunity.

Mills said the 15 minutes pre-floor time in the House is the best opportunity he has each day to talk to legislators.

“It’s my most efficient time of the day,” he said and reducing access just harms his ability to do his job well.

All who spoke against HR4 said reporters are not trying to bug or bother lawmakers, but are trying to get information so they can accurately inform the public via print and broadcast stories.

Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, said she personally likes to talk to reporters, sometimes seeks them out, because she wants stories about her bills and issues seen by her constituents.

“We rely on conversations” with lawmakers “to understand often very complex bills,” said Winslow.

“From a practical standpoint, when I’m on the floor I’m just asking for explanations to understand” what a bill, issue or budget proposal means, he added.

Sources within the House GOP Caucus tell UtahPolicy.com that some members have complained that they’ve been speaking with a colleague only to turn around to find a reporter eavesdropping on their conversation, which precipitated the media ban.

Dunnigan agreed to, first, amending the 45-minute banning time to 15 minutes. After some discussion, by a motion by Rules Committee vice chairman Val Peterson, R-Orem, the committee voted that to be five minutes before scheduled floor time. Dunnigan did not oppose the five-minute proposal.

Chairman Mike Noel, R-Kanab, noted that reporters could still stand in the north hallway outside the chambers and try to grab lawmakers as they go in and out.

But it is still unclear from the wording of the amended HR4 if reporters could even be there – for it says credentialed members of the media should be “in their assigned places” in the gallery just before floor time.

In any case, reporters must be off the floor five minutes before floor time, as the bill was amended.

But in upcoming House floor debate, the original 45 minutes – or longer – could be put back in the bill by representatives who don’t want to face reporters before they start voting on bills and budgets.

The amended five-minute media ban was passed 6-2, with Moss and Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake, voting no, and all the Republicans on the committee voting yes.

On the motion to reduce the media floor ban to just five minutes, Reps. Timothy Hawkes, R-Centerville, and Justin Fawson, R-North Ogden, voted “no,” meaning they wanted a longer media banning time than just five minutes.