Texas House expands the ability of online news outlets to gain media credentials at the Legislature

For the first time in more than a decade, the Texas House has approved a new process for people to apply for a media credential at the Texas Legislature. The new rules allow for expanded access to the proceedings of the legislature so that online news outlets and others can be present on the floors of both the House and Senate during lawmakers' deliberations. Since there has been some controversy about this, an explanation of the facts is appropriate.

Despite reports and hall talk to the contrary, this is in no way a question of politicians deciding who is a journalist and who is not. This is a question of who can be on the floor when these legislative bodies are in the midst of their deliberations. The First Amendment will remain intact if someone engaged in illegal lobbying loses their access to the floor during session. If for some reason a reporter does not obtain a media credential, they can still sit in the galleries of the House and Senate, attend committee meetings, and more. By all accounts, this change has thus far made it easier to get a media credential. News outlets that were not previously present on the House floor are already reporting from it for the first time.

Access to the Texas Capitol is not in question. All Texans have access to the Capitol every day. Texas is one of the very few states in which journalists are allowed on the floor of its legislature during session. There will inevitably be instances of people being denied media credentials, but the changes made to expand access are not reason to fear that the house is tightening up the process. House Administration Committee Chairman Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, said part of the goal is to increase access for publications that are exclusively online. “There's more electronic media than there used to be," Geren said. "We denied some coverage last during the last session,” he said, referring to a website called AgendaWise. The folks who run the AgendaWise blog wanted access to capitol computer servers for their own live video stream of the Legislature, similar to the Texas Tribune’s access in the past. AgendaWise was denied. The Tribune’s access to Capitol servers has been canceled following upgrades to the state’s video streaming technology. The Tribune had a contract with the state for that video stream, but the House has no plans to renew it.

When Rep. Hubert Vo, D-Houston, asked whether there have been any problems with the media credentialing process, Geren said, “We got sued.” He noted, however, that the lawsuit filed by AgendaWise over the whole ordeal was thrown out by the Third Court of Appeals in Austin.

Rep. Geren said he has no interest in barring reporters from the floor. But, the dustup with AgendaWise creates the need for more clarity about the rules. "This is trying to address some of that so it's a smoother operation,” he said. Geren did not mention AgendaWise by name, by the way, but that is the organization he was referring to. Geren made his comments when the House Administration Committee signed off on the new rules allowing for more access to the floor. The full Texas House approved the new rules shortly after the 2015 legislative session began last Tuesday.

Significant changes to the media credential application include the fact that it must be notarized. The old one did not. Also, the new application requires that a person seeking floor access during session must affirm that they are not engaged in lobbying as defined under the Government Code. For a journalist to obtain a media credential, they must work for a news outlet that has “published or operated continuously for 18 months” prior to the date the application is filled out.

Lawmakers can complain to the House Administration Committee if they believe someone has lied on their application, triggering an investigation to determine if the media credential should be revoked. If it is determined that the applicant did not tell the truth, the only sanction that can be carried out is revocation of the media credential. In other words, the only thing that can happen is a person can lose their privilege to be on the floor of the House and Senate during session.


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