Opinion: Proposed rules for Utah journalists hurt everyone

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For the last four years I have reported on a variety of bills at the Utah Legislature as a student journalist. I have covered protests on the south steps of the Capitol and the historic virtual session in 2020. I have highlighted survivors’ stories of Utah’s opiate epidemic and documented the lifesaving legislation that contributed to this. None of these stories would have been possible without the close access I had to the Capitol as a member of the media.

On Feb. 15, the Utah State Senate pushed through SR1, sponsored by Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, which limits a journalist’s access to the senate floor.

The primary concerning portion of SR1 focuses on how reporters and senators interact on the Senate floor after the day is over. Reporters used to be able to ask clarifying questions by pulling a member of the Senate aside after the session was over. This ability helped reporters write news stories with accurate representations of legislation.

Now, journalists need to receive permission from the “senate media designee” to access the Senate floor.

Republican senators passed the rule Feb. 15 with a 17-5 vote after discussing the reasoning for the rules on Feb. 14. Senators cited safety as the number one reason for voting yes on SR1.

Throughout the 45-day legislative session it would be nearly impossible for the public to follow every bill and every open meeting. For this reason, the role of journalists at the Utah Capitol is vital. Although this specific rule allows for continued access with permission, passing it sets the precedent that media is not a priority in the Utah Senate.

I have had the privileged opportunity to document some of the incredible stories that influence what happens on Capitol Hill, many of which I could only find because of my close proximity to the legislators themselves.

During my freshman year I spoke with Rep. Adam Robertson, R-Provo after the meetings for the day ended. We talked about his experience at the Utah Legislature and how it has impacted his faith and family. He talked about school fees and drone laws and the people that inspired the legislation he sponsors. He shared his gratitude toward his family for allowing him to leave for a nearly two months to serve the state.

Without the proximity to the legislators themselves, I would not have gained access to the stories behind the legislation. I would have never met the family who could not afford food for the month because of the mountain of school fees due every semester. I would have never met the 16-year-old sex trafficking survivor who was recovering from a heroin addiction. I would have never understood the sacrifice that each Utah State legislator makes and the hope they hold as many of them leave their families for nearly two months.

The Utah State Senate is not just limiting journalists’ access to vital information — they are restricting the entire public’s access to information.

—Decker Westenburg

Photographer and Senior Reporter

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