IOWA CITY — The Republican-controlled Iowa Legislature has again denied press access to a liberal journalist whose blog is often critical of its policies, despite warnings from state and national groups that the restriction appears to be unconstitutional.
The Iowa House and the Iowa Senate informed Laura Belin, who operates the Bleeding Heartland blog, that her applications for access during the session that began Monday were rejected.
Iowa House chief clerk Meghan Nelson told Belin that the chamber “does not credential outlets that are nontraditional/independent in nature,” even though its policy does not say that. Iowa Senate chief clerk Charlie Smithson said his body determined Belin is not a “member of the media” but did not elaborate.
Those were different stated reasons than last year, when an Iowa House official suggested that it did not credential Belin because she is a blogger without a boss. The Iowa Senate didn’t reject Belin’s credentials last year, but it refused her requests to work in the press gallery by claiming it was always full even when seats were empty.
Both chambers adopted policies governing press access last year after receiving scrutiny over their handling of Belin’s requests, but neither cited specific requirements in their denials issued late Friday.
“If they have a policy, why aren’t they applying it?” said David Keating, president of the Institute for Free Speech, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., that works to protect First Amendment rights. “When I look at the policy, it looks like she would qualify.”
After learning about Belin’s case, his group sent Iowa lawmakers a legal memo last April that concluded she should receive the same accommodations as other journalists. Any credentialing policies that deny access based on her status as a blogger or her progressive views “suffer from serious constitutional deficiencies,” the memo warned.
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The memo was written by the Davis Wright Tremaine law firm, which won a free speech case against Iowa State University in 2018 that ultimately cost the school nearly $1 million in legal fees and damages.
The Iowa Freedom of Information Council also protested last year’s denial, saying Belin was “one of the most well-read political reporters and commentators in Iowa” and that lawmakers had no basis for denying her access. The advocacy group PEN America, which champions freedom of expression, had asked the Iowa House to reconsider the rejection.
Belin said Tuesday she is surprised that legislative leaders have persisted in their denials, but that she would continue fighting them as a matter of principle. She said she is considering her next steps, including an appeal or a lawsuit.
“Press freedom has never been just for reporters who don’t express political opinions,” she said.
She said she will still cover the Legislature, but that having access would improve her reporting by letting her question lawmakers during routine briefings and gaggles, and capture better photos and audio of proceedings.
The Iowa House credentialing policy limits press access to “bona fide correspondents of repute in their profession” who are paid and whose principal business is original news reporting, among other things. The Senate policy has similar requirements for reporters seeking workspace.
Belin said that her site, which published 638 original articles or commentaries in 2019, including dozens about the Legislature, meets each element of those policies. Her blog reaches thousands of readers, accepts reader contributions and has been recognized as a media outlet by the Iowa Judicial Branch, she noted.
Belin said she is being treated differently than similarly situated news outlets that were granted credentials to cover the Legislature, including a newly-launched online news service and a legislative newsletter. She noted that any restrictions on media must be applied uniformly without regard to viewpoint.