On Thursday, Arizona Speaker of the House and 2016 congressional candidate David Gowan (R) implemented a new policy requiring reporters who want to cover the legislature from the House floor to undergo rigorous background checks, including an examination of their criminal, civil, and driving records.
The new policy goes as far as to list specific offenses, including misdemeanor ones like trespassing, which automatically disqualify a reporter from being on the House floor for up to 10 years. That’s significant because misdemeanor trespass is an offense that Arizona Capitol Times reporter Hank Stephenson was convicted of following a bar fight a couple years ago.
Early this year, Stephenson wrote a piece scrutinizing Gowan’s use of a state vehicle during a 19-day period last October during which he logged nearly 4,800 miles of windshield time. Some of the events he traveled to were related to his congressional campaign, and using a state vehicle for that purpose is unlawful. Gowan has since reimbursed the state more than $12,000, and his office is now under investigation by Arizona’s Attorney General for misuse of public resources.
Other Arizona outlets have openly wondered whether the new policy is really just a way to make Stephenson’s life more difficult, and reporters from other outlets have refused to consent to the background checks. As a result, instead of having their usual direct access to legislators on the House floor, reporters are now covering things from the balcony.
My view from the house today. floor privileges revoked after reporters declined to sign background check form. pic.twitter.com/4g0lOCdWm0
— Alia Beard Rau (@aliarau) April 7, 2016
Gowan cites safety concerns to justify the new policy, the idea being that a reporter might physically harm a legislator on the House floor. Even he acknowledges that in the last 34 years there’s no precedent for something like that happening, but he apparently thinks lawmakers can never be too safe.
“There had never been an attack on 9/11 either, like that occurred either, before on our shore,” Gowan said yesterday, according to the Arizona Daily Star. “But it did.”
Gowan and his staff also pointed to an incident that took place on March 28 during a House hearing about Arizona’s messy presidential primary, where voters had to wait in lines so long that the Department of Justice has since launched an investigation. The hearing was disrupted by protesters, one of whom was arrested and subsequently charged with assaulting a police officer who pricked himself on an open safety pin he was wearing:
But since that incident took place in the gallery, not on the House floor, and didn’t involve state staff or reporters, Gowan’s new policy wouldn’t prevent such things from occurring.
In a statement, Ginger Lamb, publisher of the Arizona Capitol Times, called the timing of Gowan’s policy “peculiar.”
“This new protocol would have an adverse effect on a member of our reporting team that has written several stories that are critical of the speaker’s leadership,” she said. “I would hope this is coincidence, but past experience leads me to believe otherwise.”
Even some of Gowan’s fellow Republicans are skeptical. “I don’t think we need to go through these folks’ background with a fine-toothed comb, with a microscope,” Rep. Rob Thorpe (R) said.
Stephenson, for his part, doesn’t buy that Gowan’s policy is about safety or anything besides his previous reporting.
— Hank Stephenson (@hankdeanlight) April 7, 2016
— Hank Stephenson (@hankdeanlight) April 7, 2016
A message left with Stephenson seeking further comment wasn’t immediately returned.
Asked whether Gowan’s policy might be unconstitutional, Dan Pochoda, senior counsel for the Arizona ACLU, told ThinkProgress he’s not prepared right now to offer an opinion, but added that the policy might not be unlawful, as journalists are still allowed inside the Capitol chambers, just not on the House floor.
Gowan added, however, that he views Gowan’s policy as a “low-level move” clearly targeted at a reporter who had done good work exposing an elected official’s misconduct.
“The intent was, you write this thing about me, and then we’re going to take steps to make life harder for you,” Pochoda said. “They say they had been planning this move for a while, but there’s a level of this that’s like, don’t piss on my shoe and tell me it’s raining.”
Pochoda said the new policy is ironic in light of the fact that legislators in Arizona were recently given permission to carry guns on the House floor.
“There’s a literal danger there, and here these jerks are worried about the media,” he said.
Pochoda hasn’t heard from Stephenson yet, but said he’s interesting in working with Capitol reporters who now face the prospect of indefinitely working from a dark balcony without desks to challenge the legality of the policy.