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Arizona House upholds restriction requiring background checks of journalists

Arizona Republic photographer Nick Oza and Associated Press journalist Bob Christie report from the gallery of the Arizona House of Representatives after reporters were denied access to the floor pending criminal and civil background checks, in Phoenix on Thursday, April 7, 2016. (AP Photo/Ryan VanVelzer)

PHOENIX — A rule that requires background checks for reporters who want access to the state House floor will remain in tact, despite efforts made by both Arizona House Democrats and journalists to repeal it.

Democrats sought a new rule Monday mandating reporter floor access and another barring firearms from the floor, but they were rebuffed by majority Republicans.

The rule was implemented last week by Arizona Speaker of the House David Gowan.

Many officials and organizations, including the First Amendment Coalition of Arizona, believe it was done so after a reporter unveiled Gowan was using state money to travel for a political campaign.

“No one is fooled by what’s going on,” attorney Dan Barr said. “Speaker Gowan is seeking to take revenge against Hank Stephenson for letting people know that (he) was using $12,000 of state money to run his congressional campaign.”

Gowan repaid the state more than $12,000 after the report and took the unusual step of asking the Arizona attorney general to investigate whether he broke the law. An investigation was opened on April 8.

The House speaker denied his decision had anything to do with negative stories reporters have written and said he wasn’t denying access.

Gowan said the changes were made because of security concerns after a man was arrested in the gallery last week for shouting during raucous protests over the long lines in the Arizona presidential primary. He contends the new security measures don’t specifically target the press.

“I have not restricted your access to come in,” Gowan said Wednesday. “My policy is for non-employees. It has everything to do with the security of my members here. In fact, my members are asking for more security.”

Gowan also invoked the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in arguing that conducting background checks on reporters was a necessary tool to prevent unforeseen violence.

“Lots of things happen to a lot of people, and we want to make sure that our members are secure. I don’t understand the problem with that.”

The new security rules for journalists were announced Monday. They initially required all journalists routinely covering the chamber to immediately allow the House staff to search for any criminal or civil cases, plus employer or any other records.

The employer-records provision was removed, but the form journalists are being asked to sign still requires a blanket waiver of rights to search for criminal, civil or other public records along with information about where journalists live.

News organizations, such as The Associated Press, have refused to sign the waiver.

According to the Phoenix New Times, the Arizona Department of Public Safety claimed they would not get involved in the background checks, interfering with the House’s ability to obtain information on the journalists.

Reporters who routinely cover the House receive credentials and get access to the chamber’s floor through an electronic key card, and for decades there have been desks for them to do their work.

When the House isn’t in session, reporters can talk to lawmakers and ask questions about important legislation and other matters. It’s a key method for journalists who cover the House to get to know and understand the positions of lawmakers in both major parties.

“When you start to peel back the fats here, you see there’s absolutely nothing supporting this policy other than vengeance,” Barr said. “He can rescind the silly policy or he’ll face the consequences for that.”

Those consequences could include a lawsuit, according to Barr.

KTAR’s Brian Rackham and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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