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Content-neutral: Expanding Minnesota Senate media credentialing

Five weeks ago, I asked you if I should help the government determine Minnesota Senate media-credentialing rules.

Five weeks ago, I asked you if I should help the government determine Minnesota Senate media-credentialing rules. I decided to.

Tuesday afternoon, I’m scheduled to testify in front of the Senate Rules committee about what our working group came up with. I thought you’d like to review our suggestions now; the draft proposal is below, in full. (There are a few tweaks coming, but at the moment, it’s copy editing stuff.)

Quick background: The Senate credential allows reporters to watch the debate from the floor, and interview members in the chamber before or after a day’s session. Current rules limit the privilege to “news agencies that regularly cover the legislature.” However, some media organizations say they’ve been excluded because they are out of favor with the party in power.

The working group — composed of Republican Senate majority-caucus staffers Cullen Sheehan and Michael Brodkorb, DFL minority-caucus staffer Beau Berentson, conservative blogger Mitch Berg, Sergeant-at-Arms Sven Lindquist, and myself — operated by consensus. Everyone was professional, constructive and agreed on the major points pretty quickly.

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My goals going in were:

1. Expand media access
2. Forbid government from judging a journalist’s viewpoint
3. Ensure credentialing is format-neutral (new media versus traditional forms)

Here’s what would happen if Senators approve our recommendations:

The Sergeant-at-Arms — a nonpartisan staffer — would administer the credentialing process. Senators and partisan staff are expressly prohibited from intervening unless a journalist appeals his or her rejection. (More on that in a bit.)

Believe me, nobody — not the politicians, not the Capitol press corps — wants to define who is a journalist. However, because Senate space is limited, we decided on a fairly low bar: Applicants for a session-long credential must include three pieces in any format in the past year on “matters before the legislature.” That can include blog posts, video, etc.

The proposed rules state “any opinion in such pieces is immaterial” for credentialing. Does this mean more “ideological” journalists will get credentials? Almost certainly yes. But the Minnesota and U.S. Constitutions don’t limit freedom of the press to perceived non-ideologues.

However, publications “owned or controlled” by lobbyists, political parties and party organizations “shall not be granted credentials.” Lobbyists are currently barred from the Senate floor.

Since more people will probably get credentials, the Senate will create a balcony press gallery with no fewer than 10 spaces (in addition to the four to six seats on the floor). No matter where they sit, credentialed reporters will have the same floor privileges, and documents.

The Sergeant’s office has 14 days to review an application. That means if you want to cover opening day, get your application in by mid-December. It also means you can’t just drop in on the Capitol and declare yourself a journalist. (There’s a separate provision for day passes.)

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If the Sergeant’s office rejects an application, the reasons must be spelled out in writing. One legal advisor strongly suggested having an appeals process. Therefore, the matter would go to the Senate Rules committee, which must issue a decision within 14 days.

This does bring politicians into the mix. The concept is that the Senate is the final arbiter of its rules (short of the courts, where applicants can always turn). Could Senators bum-rush an applicant they didn’t like? It’s possible. But unlike the current process, the debate would occur in public and be governed by their rules, which again, forbid consideration of opinion.

One of the trickier issues: whether bigger organizations deserved easier access. The current Capitol press corps represent organizations that tend to serve the most people in the state; we didn’t want them excluded if a raft of smaller players fills the seats.

So we decided to codify the current rules. Four floor seats are reserved for organizations with leases in the Capitol’s basement press area — a rough proxy for “bigger,” but more flexible than the current rules, which name some media outlets that no longer have regular Capitol presences.

Beyond those four floor seats, it’s first-come, first-served, though journalists with session passes get precedence over those with day passes.

By the way, longtime Senate observers — of which I am not one — say the press seats rarely fill. Still, you want to plan for the rare cases.

One thing the rules don’t cover is how a journalist could lose credentials. Ultimately, we decided that the Senate’s decorum rules and the Sergeant’s discretion would suffice, and that it’s a lot harder to take something away than give it in the first place.

Here’s the full draft — again, there may be a few copy-editing tweaks before Tuesday, but if there’s anything bigger I’ll let you know. The hearing is 3 p.m. Tuesday in room 112 of the Capitol. And I’ll be happy to respond to your thoughts or questions in the comments.

Proposed Minnesota Senate Credentialing Rule