The Utah House of Representative approved a rule Tuesday that limits media access to the House floor — a rule almost identical to one the Utah Senate approved earlier in the 2022 legislative session despite protests from journalists about transparency and public access.
HR2, sponsored by Rep. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, was approved on a 65-9 bipartisan vote on Tuesday.
In past years, Utah Capitol credentialed journalists have been able to access the House floor to interview lawmakers immediately after adjournment, but HR2 requires media members to seek and receive permission from the House speaker or the speaker’s media designee before gaining access to the floor, whether or not the House is in session.
A previous version of the rule would have required media to get permission before entering House committee rooms, but Dunnigan offered a new draft when it was heard by the House Rules Committee on Monday to clarify it would not limit media access to public spaces like committee rooms.
Additionally, the rule also requires photographers and videographers to get permission from a committee chairperson before standing behind the committee room dais during a meeting — a provision that was also included in the Senate’s rule change.
In Monday’s hearing, Renae Cowley, a representative for the Utah Media Coalition, which has opposed the increased limitations, acknowledged that the new House rule would likely be approved, but thanked Dunnigan for the clarification on access to committee rooms.
Cowley also urged lawmakers to consider the future creation of a Utah Capitol press corps that would include appointees from the House and Senate, Capitol Preservation Board, and two members of the media to tackle future rules or issues.
“As you can tell, by doing simple math, this committee would already be stacked in favor of the government, but it does offer the media and members of the press the opportunity to be a part of some of the decisions made regarding their practice and their profession,” she said.
“If ever there is misconduct or unprofessional behavior from anyone, it is the members of the press corp that pull that person out and send someone else,” Cowley added.
Dunnigan welcomed future conversations about creating a Capitol press corps, and said those conversations would continue into the interim.
“I think it’s a good idea. I really think we ought to consider that ... I love the concept,” Dunnigan said.
When the Senate’s version of the rule was heard in a committee, media representatives from multiple organizations, including the Deseret News, expressed concerns that the new rule would make it more difficult to get answers from lawmakers.
On the House floor Tuesday, Dunnigan said the rule is “not really designed to be restrictive. It’s just a continuation of what we already do.”
Dunnigan said there isn’t a “major problem” with media being disruptive or intrusive, but said he has seen a few lawmakers who feel uncomfortable having cameras looking over their shoulders.
Rep. Norm Thurston, R-Provo, agreed.
”I have seen many examples of media waiting until the end of floor time and coming onto the House floor while you’re at your desk and leaning up on your desk and saying, ‘Can I ask you a question’ with a tape recorder in your face. … I think that this is the right direction to stop that sort of gotcha approach,” Thurston said. “If a media person wants to talk to you, they could have the decency to call your cellphone and schedule a time and tell you what they want to talk about, which is consistent with their code of ethics.”
Rep. Suzanne Harrison, D-Draper, expressed concerns with “the restrictions on our free press,” and House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, said the rule is “in practice and certainly in perception ... moving away from transparency for the media as opposed to moving toward that.”
”I know that we’re just trying to adjust the rules and put these in writing, but I think the optics are terrible,” said Rep. Steve Handy, R-Layton.
Dunnigan agreed with the importance of transparency and press access, saying that lawmakers have a mandate to do “the people’s work.” Still, he argued that the rule is meant to give lawmakers the ability to secure their workspace, without significantly impacting the press.
“All we’re saying is, for a member of the media to go back in the House lounge or this hallway, they need to have permission. ... We’re not trying to limit the media. They’re a valuable partner. We need them. We appreciate them,” Dunnigan said.
The House approved the rule with the required two-thirds majority vote. Because it’s a House rule, it does not need an OK from the Senate. It takes effect immediately.
Contributing: Bridger Beal-Cvetko