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SPJ says legislative leaders must stop infringing press rights at statehouses



Paul Fletcher, SPJ National President, 804-873-1893, pfletcher.spj@gmail.com
Jennifer Royer, SPJ Communications Strategist, 317-361-4134, jroyer@spj.org

INDIANAPOLIS – The Society of Professional Journalists is angry and offended by attempts to stymie press coverage of state legislatures.

In Virginia, the Richmond Times-Dispatch has reported that Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment, R-James City, suddenly has refused to allow journalists onto the Senate floor to cover proceedings as the 2016 General Assembly gets under way. Reporters have had tables on the Senate floor for decades. Now, Norment has banished them to cramped quarters where they can't see much and it's difficult to do their jobs.

“Perhaps Sen. Norment forgets that he is doing public business in the building designed by Thomas Jefferson,” said SPJ National President Paul Fletcher, whose office is in Richmond.

Jefferson's belief in a watchdog press being essential to the workings of democracy bears repeating: "The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."

The events in Virginia come at the same time reporters in Missouri also have been kicked off the Senate floor. The Columbia Journalism Review reports that a year ago, the statehouse press corps was moved from its first-floor offices to the fifth floor, which has no elevator access. Last week, senators voted overwhelmingly to move reporters from a table they had occupied for years on the Senate floor. Beginning March 29, reporters will be required to view the action from a visitors’ gallery overlooking the chamber, similar to the new arrangement in Virginia. Senate leadership has also sent a memo asking reporters not to track down senators on the floor after adjournment, but to set up interviews via staff instead.

SPJ calls upon Norment and other Virginia leaders, as well as those in Missouri responsible for these misguided changes, immediately to allow the press to return to their normal working conditions and to show their commitment to transparency.

“Reporters are the eyes and ears of the American people. State legislatures across the country are public forums, and taxpayers – including reporters -- have a right to observe and know what is happening when lawmakers gather to conduct business,” said Fletcher.

“At a time when journalists are calling for more transparency from the federal government down, these actions at state legislatures are very disturbing,” Fletcher added. “It’s time for elected officials in this country to stop these ridiculous attempts to ignore the First Amendment and silence the press.”

Journalists in Virginia are sending letters in protest of these actions to state leaders today.

"Majority Leader Norment is ignoring the fact that the press, like the legislature, is at the capitol representing the public," said Andy Schotz, SPJ's director for Region 2, which includes Virginia. "It's as if he's thumbing his nose at all residents of the state.”

Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed citizenry; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press. For more information about SPJ, please visit spj.org.


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