Texas House Weighs Restrictions on Journalists’ Access to Capitol

Texas Capitol (Photo: Reuters)

AUSTIN, Texas — The Texas House is considering new restrictions on media credentials at the Capitol that could present new challenges for citizen journalists, bloggers, and other new media who wish to cover the Legislature.

As Breitbart Texas reported last month, Capitol media credentials are governed by the House Administration Committee, which is chaired by Rep. Charlie Geren (R-Fort Worth), an appointee of Speaker Joe Straus (R-San Antonio). Geren’s committee recently revised the rules to require applicants to affirm that they are not engaged in lobbying and to have the form notarized. According to the Daily Floor Report by the House Research Organization for January 15, the House is now considering further changes to the rules that govern how members of the media can qualify for press credentials.

Rep. Jonathan Stickland (R-Bedford) sought to postpone the vote, on the grounds that House members had had barely 24 hours to read and analyze it, which was not “ample time to review and understand all implications of the new house rules.” In a statement obtained by Breitbart Texas, Stickland noted that he had heard many speeches on the first day of Session, with House leadership saying that “it was important for Austin not to operate like Washington DC.” However, continued Stickland, “[t]he bulldog tactics currently being used to ram this resolution through the process, is exactly what one would see from a Nancy Pelosi lead body in our nation’s capitol.” Stickland’s motion to postpone the vote  failed, and the House proceeded to begin debate on the numerous items contained in its text.

The new rules would now require members of the media who were applying for a Capitol media credential to “be employed by a print, broadcast, or Internet news organization that had been published or operated continuously for 18 months and was in the principal business of periodically disseminating original news and opinion of interest to a broad segment of the public.”

However, the 18 month age requirement may prove difficult to satisfy for independent bloggers and other citizen journalists. Moreover, considering Texas’ rapid growth over the past few years, it is likely that additional media outlets may wish to move into the state,  but then would be barred from Capitol media credentials for their first session. The rule, as currently drafted, does not allow any exceptions to the 18 month requirement.

Perhaps most troubling is the last section of the proposed new rule:

House members who believed that a media representative who was granted access to the House  chamber did not meet the requirements or had abused the privileges could submit a written complaint to the House Administration Committee. The committee would be required to investigate the complaint and could temporarily suspend the media representative’s privileges pending the investigation. After a hearing, if the committee determined that the allegations in the complaint were valid, the media representative’s privileges would be revoked.

This section gives House members the ability to report a member of the media via a written complaint for a reason as vague as having “abused the privileges” of the media credential, and then the House Administration Committee is required to investigate the complaint, and has the power to temporarily suspend the media credential while the investigation is ongoing. Considering the vague language in this section, and its grant of power to the committee to immediately suspend a media credential, this arguably creates an incentive for elected officials to retaliate against reporters who criticize them.

Previous versions of the media credentialing rules have created their own confusion. In an interview with the Texas Tribune in September, Straus said that the “media landscape clearly is changing, but he acknowledged that he could not say for certain where the line was. AgendaWise, a conservative group, filed suit when their reporters were denied media passes, as Breitbart Texas reported. Breitbart Texas has confirmed that AgendaWise has been in existence longer than 18 months, so if they apply for and are denied media passes, the House Administration Committee will have to use another excuse.

The House is continuing to debate these potential rule changes on Thursday. Breitbart Texas will continue to follow this story and provide updates.

Follow Sarah Rumpf on Twitter @rumpfshaker.