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Published On: Thu, Jan 14th, 2016

Thomas Norment, Virginia GOP under attack for expelling press from Senate

On the first day of the 2016 General Assembly Virginia Senate Majority Leader Thomas Norment, R-James City County affirmed the GOP majority to ban reporters from the Senate floor, where they have covered the chamber for decades.

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

Norment instructed Senate Clerk Susan Clarke Schaar to have press tables removed from the chamber as part of a change to the Senate Rules approved Wednesday that effectively revokes media privileges from the floor of the Senate when it is in session.

“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.”

Asked about barring reporters from the Senate floor, Norment said: “You’ll get used to this refrain during the session. I have no comment.”

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.

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“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.”

Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat who presides over the state Senate, criticized the change. “We need more transparency in the General Assembly, not less,” he said in a statement.

“The media plays a very important role here at the Capitol as we conduct the people’s business. Removing members of the press from the floor only makes their jobs more difficult and, in the end, is a disservice to Virginians.”

U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., a former Virginia governor, wrote on Twitter that he agrees with Northam. “@LGRalphNortham is exactly right: no justification for limiting media access to the Virginia Senate.”

 

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About the Author

- Roxanne "Butter" Bracco began with the Dispatch as Pittsburgh Correspondent, but will be providing reports and insights from Washington DC, Maryland and the surrounding region. Contact Roxie aka "Butter" at [email protected] ATTN: Roxie or Butter Bracco

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