Reporter Background Checks

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Leaders of the Arizona House are now requiring reporters to undergo criminal and other background checks to cover stories from the floor of the House. Attorney Dan Barr of Perkins and Coie and Howard Fischer of Capitol Media Services will discuss the new requirement.

Ted Simons: Coming up next on "Arizona Horizon," the Arizona house institutes new background checks for reporters covering the capitol.

Ted Simons: We'll hear about a film screening that promotes a proposed new national monument in Arizona.

Ted Simons: And how to end homelessness among veterans. That's next on "Arizona Horizon."

Video: "Arizona Horizon" is made possible by contributions from the Friends of Arizona PBS, members of your PBS station. Thank you.

Ted Simons: Good evening and welcome to "Arizona Horizon," I'm Ted Simons. Leaders of the state house of representatives today began requiring members of the press to submit to expanded background checks if they want to cover stories from the house floor. House officials say the reason for the move is security. The new rules state that any felony or misdemeanor, with some exceptions, during the past 10 years would disqualify a reporter from covering the house from the floor. The rules were put into place not long after Arizona Capitol Times reporter Hank Stephenson wrote a series of articles exposing house speaker David Gowan's travels at state expense while running for congress. Gowan had to refund the state $12,000. Stephenson has a second-degree trespass conviction from a bar fight, which means the new rules would prohibit him from covering the house from the floor. Speaker Gowan denied the new requirement was aimed at any specific reporter.

Ted Simons: Here now to discuss the new background check requirements is Dan Barr, an attorney from Perkins Coie, and veteran reporter Howard Fischer of capitol Media Services. Good to have you both here. Dan, what exactly did the house do and -- [Laughs] Can they do that?

Dan Barr: Well, you can't make this stuff up and I've got to say given speaker Gowan's concerns I'm concerned with having Howie here right now without having done a thorough background check so... But I think we can get enough courage to go on with this. You know, the First Amendment prohibits public officials from targeting reporters, specific reporters and taking action against them in revenge against you know, what they've written about them and if that, in fact, has happened here with speaker Gowan against hank Stephenson that would be a violation of the First Amendment. They go to great lengths to try to show that it isn't that, although many of the facts that they cite have absolutely nothing to do with having reporters sign these forms.

Ted Simons: I was going to say, Howie what's going on there at the capitol? Why is this necessary?

Howard Fischer: They say security. Look there was a disturbance last week after the house elections committee met, most of the people didn't get to testify, and that was up in the public gallery. Now remember, the public area, anybody can walk in, there's no metal detectors. If there's a security problem, it's there. Dan's comments notwithstanding, I'm not sure that me sitting on the house floor is a threat but the problem becomes house leadership off and on all over the 34 years I've been covering this has been hostile to the media. They don't like us on the floor, we get to go up to the members after they've said something, ask them to clarify what they've said, leaving them a little baffled and confused. This is a secure area. You want me to undergo a criminal background check by a police agency? I'll do that. This allowed the house staff, political staff, to go ahead and ask us criminal, civil? Driving records? Lord knows my driving will affect my house coverage. Prior apartments, where I've lived, perhaps my divorces, and that's the problem.

Ted Simons: With that in mind, who gets to decide whether or not this -- who conducts the background check and whether or not that background check works for this purpose?

Dan Barr: Well, I've got to believe that the house security group is not the highest on the ladder for groups doing security checks. I mean, there's no rational connection with what's going on here. If the house is truly concerned with safety you would say well, what incidents of safety have occurred on the house floor in the last 30 years? Oh, nothing. Well,...

Howard Fischer: What's fascinating about this and the Democrats pointed it out is this funny juxtaposition, we reported in the last two weeks that David Gowan it turns out is allowing house members to carry arms on the floor, never mind the building is supposed to be a public gun-free building, he says well my members are excepted which led to some interesting questions from representative Lee Lawson, she said look, I've been through the impeachment, all sorts of demonstrations, I've never felt a problem from the gallery, never felt a problem from the press, now you're telling me somebody next to me is armed? Maybe that's the person I should be afraid of.

Ted Simons: If reporters get together, if hank Stephenson on his own, any variety of combinations here, if people want to challenge this, can they challenge it legally? If so, how?

Dan Barr: Sure well you could challenge it, you could file an action in federal court, and then you would have the burden of showing that speaker Gowan had taken this action against hank Stephenson, that despite what he says, that he has aimed this as revenge against hank Stephenson. We've seen this before. We saw this happen 19 years ago with speaker don Aldridge when he banned a reporter from the east valley tribune from the house floor for six days and that was in revenge for a series written about Aldridge. We saw this happen 29 years ago when John Colby, the Gazette columnist, was declared a nonperson and wouldn't deal with him. So this isn't the first time we've seen this.

Howard Fischer: The problem becomes the Constitution sets up the Arizona house, the legislative branch as a separate branch and they get to set their own rules. Look there are chambers where you're not allowed on the house floor in some other states and certainly that becomes an issue. Now, the fact is, though, the 34 years I've been there and decades before that, we've always had floor privileges and there seems to be no particular reason to do that other than to throw roadblocks in our path.

Ted Simons: Last question, can you do your job from the gallery and from any place other than the house floor?

Howard Fischer: I can report on what is said on the house floor. This makes it harder for me, let's say a lawmaker has a discussion on the floor, I have questions. Now, I go up to the lawmaker afterwards and say wait a second you said this but here are the facts. The inability to get to lawmakers easily because they can scurry back to their offices again behind the secure areas and refuse to talk and refuse to come out means the public will get less information and there will be less accountability.

Ted Simons: Last question for you, the fact that there has been no incident other than something which has happened in the gallery, which is apart from the house floor, the fact that there's been nothing previous, does that suggest they don't have a legal standing?

Dan Barr: I think they would have a hard time in court. I can just picture speaker Gowan being cross-examined for 15 minutes or half an hour, it would not be pretty.

Ted Simons: All right, I think we'll stop it right there. Howie good luck from the gallery, we will see you soon, Dan, good to see you again. Thanks for joining us.

Dan Barr: Attorney from Perkins Coie; Howard Fischer: Capitol Media Services

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