Under the policy change, members of the media may only approach lawmakers if invited by those members — even when the Senate is not in session.
The policy doesn’t bar reporters from being on the physical Senate floor, where there are press tables on either wing of the chamber.
But it’s not quite clear how the new policy will be enforced. The Senate did not specify what would constitute prior approval for an interview with legislators. Would a wave or a nod by a member suffice, for example, as an invitation for an interview? Or does it have to be in writing, say through an e-mail correspondence between the legislator and a reporter?
What is clear is that the policy change is a break from tradition.
Prior to this rule, members of the press are free to approach legislators and ask questions so long as the Senate is not in session. That has been the case for as long as anyone can remember.
There are existing restrictions. The media can’t approach members while the Senate is gaveled in. Also, the use of camera flashes is prohibited while the chamber is in session. But photographers and videographers were free to take shots of the floor debates and other proceedings.
Pearce said he issued the new directive in response to members’ request, who were offended that they “get ambushed” for interviews at their desks on the Senate floor.
It appears that the members who complained to Pearce were mostly unsettled by cameras. A Senate staffer had explained to the Arizona Capitol Times that it’s a reaction to some reporters “shoving” their cameras in the faces of legislators on the Senate floor.
“Cameras don’t belong down there,” Pearce said.
Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Phoenix, called the move a restriction on the First Amendment.
“We are elected to make public decisions in a public setting, and being accessible to media requests for comments and interviews is a very important part of fulfilling our duty to the public,” she said.
Some viewed the limitation as an effort to shield some Republicans from media scrutiny.
Sen. Steve Gallardo, D-Phoenix, said the new rule came down after the Senate’s No. 2 man, Senate Majority Leader Scott Bundgaard, became the topic of media discussion.
Bundgaard is under political pressure to resign his leadership position after a Feb. 25 altercation between him and his then-girlfriend. That scuffle had landed his former girlfriend in jail while Bundgaard, who has legislative immunity, has not yet been charged with any crime.
The policy change came on the heels of an earlier decision by Pearce to limit press conferences inside the Senate.
That directive put an end to media briefings with the public in attendance.
To be clear, legislators may still conduct press conferences. They just can’t invite the public to them. Also, they must reserve a Senate room before holding an event there.
Pearce defended this new policy as a way to make the Senate building more secure and to help ensure members’ safety.
Earlier, the Senate President also banned several immigration activists from entering the Senate building after they disrupted a media briefing and clapped or booed loudly during a committee hearing on a slew of immigration measures, including the proposal that seeks to have the U.S. Supreme Court revisit the issue of American citizenship. Actually, the cheering or booing took place in an “overflow” room—not the place where the actual hearing took place.