In reversal, Legislature will allow one press member into floor sessions

Photographing (and tweeting) during a floor session in a completely different time. (Photo by Matt Buxton/TMS)

The Alaska Legislative Council has reversed course on its plan to completely block members of the press from physically attending floor sessions after receiving pushback over the decision.

The new plan would allow a single member of the media at a time to observe floor sessions from gallery seating, a move that legislators said was an attempt at compromise between the Capitol Press Corps and legislators’ concerns about covid. 

The 32nd Legislature is set to begin on Tuesday with a slate of measures aimed at preventing the spread of covid in the building, including limited access to the building and health screenings for everyone attending. Press access to the building has largely been maintained for credentialed press—allowing them to attend meetings and speak with legislators—but the blocked access to floor sessions took away a critical reporting opportunity. 

The decision on just which press member will be able to attend the floor session at any given time will be up to the press to decide.

Legislative Council chairman Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, acknowledged that one press member is a big deviation from the tables that typically seat about eight press members, but said it’s the best given concerns over the pandemic.

“We want to make sure and allow press in the building. We want them in the building, we want the public to know what’s going on but our two chambers are relatively small so we also wanted to limit the number of people in the chambers, so people feel safe,” he said. “I’m uncomfortable with (traditional floor access) and I’ve been contacted by staff members who may not be able to continue their job if they don’t feel safe on the floor. … I thought that one solution would be to allow the media to choose one member of the press and allow that person to be on the floor in the gallery, as far as way as possible.”

Alaska media attorney John McKay testified at the hearing, saying that negotiating with the Legislature is better than bringing legal action. He seemed to be begrudgingly supportive of the plan as it is better than no access—and a potential legal challenge—but asked that they allow three members of the press instead. He also noted that press members could take additional precautions like wearing N95 masks instead of cloth masks.

“I respectfully submit that we can safely go further and I think we could have certainly a minimum of one but I would say up to three,” he said. “Of course, we would all like things to be normal but they’re not normal. We could safely avoid unnecessary restrictions but recognize that we’re in the middle of a pandemic and it’s not business as usual.”

Some legislators initially seemed receptive to the idea before discussion devolved into a debate about airflow in the chamber and the height of the plexiglass dividers between the galleries and the floor. Ultimately, several senators said they were uncomfortable with any additional press members in the chambers and they decided to keep the press limited to one but adopted language that made clear that the limitations were temporary. 

“Health has to be thought of first and foremost. Not only of the legislators but of the staff. The staff has already expressed grave concern,” said Bethel Democratic Sen. Lyman Hoffman. “It is a question of life and death that we’re talking about here. In that regard, the decision is temporary.”

Outgoing Senate President Cathy Giessel also bristled at the notion that the limitations served as any kind of limitation on the First Amendment. And claimed that because video and audio of the meetings will still be available that nothing was infringing on the press’ ability to cover the Legislature. 

“There’s been talk about the Constitution and the First Amendment, which is freedom of the press. Nothing in this policy can be construed as a violation of the First Amendment. What this policy is doing is limiting risk for employees of the Legislature. We are not curtailing or restricting or enforcing any kind of control over the press other than their presence in a room,” she said. “The video will transmit all the meeting occurrences. There is no violation of the open meeting act so the concept that a lawsuit could be filed against the Legislature as a First Amendment infringement simply does not apply here.”

That didn’t go over particularly well, with Anchorage Daily News opinion editor Tom Hewitt weighing in on Twitter. 

“Don’t get me wrong: I understand arguments for it, and sure, it makes some small difference in the likelihood of COVID-19 transmission if there are 45 people in the room vs. 42,” he wrote. “But you can’t have your cake and eat it too, #akleg. You are hampering journalists’ ability to report.”

Why it matters

I covered the Legislature in person in some form from 2012 to 2018 and access to the floors is, indeed, an important part of the job. I’ll admit that I never loved it given the tie requirement and the difficulty of goofing off without anyone noticing, but being able to see, watch and, yes, overhear conversations helps give a bigger and clearer picture of what’s going on.  

While there certainly are considerable health concerns at play here, I would suggest that reporters—who are going through the same screenings as everyone else—aren’t as much a risk as, say, legislators who’re already openly flaunting the mask mandates in the building. 

In other happenings

The committee also approved a plan to purchase a remote voting system for $67,000. The system would allow legislators to cast votes on a floor session remotely in the event that it’s not safe for legislators to gather. The Legislature would still need to approve a change to its uniform rules, which requires a two thirds of each chamber.

The committee also approved monetary fines for people who refuse to wear masks. It would be $250 for the first violation and $500 for each subsequent violation.

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