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Deja few: State may again try to limit journalists

In a situation reminiscent of an Annapolis showdown three years ago, reporters seeking credentials to cover state government are finding themselves in a holding pattern as officials review the policies for the state-issued badges.

At issue, state officials say, is ensuring security at state facilities. But First Amendment advocates are expressing concerns that the new rules may limit coverage of the governor and the General Assembly or possibly create a government litmus test for defining who is a journalist.

Stephen Neuman, director of public affairs for Gov. Martin O’Malley, said the potential changes are being driven by “the changing nature of journalism and whether or not some different rules ought to be imposed.”

Jack Murphy, executive director for the Maryland-Delaware-DC Press Association, said he worries that the changes are an attempt to prevent “partisan bloggers” from covering statehouse politics — particularly in an election year.

“I think they’re really leery of partisan bloggers having access to legislators on the floor or to the governor,” Murphy said. “That was the whole argument we got from them three years ago.”

The year-round requirement

Just how far along the discussion on changing the rules has gone is unclear and different public officials give different accounts. Reporters are being denied the ability to renew or obtain replacement badges. One reporter said she was told to place black tape over her badge to cover the name of her old employer rather than be allowed to obtain a new badge reflecting her new media organization.

Sam Cook, director of facilities in Annapolis for the Department of General Services, said Wednesday that no new badges or updates would be allowed because “new policies are going to be emailed in two weeks.”

The biggest change in the policy, Cook said, would be a requirement that badges be issued to only those reporters who work in the State House complex year-round. The badges allow reporters to enter buildings without passing through security and access the floor of the House and Senate.

Although 673 badges have been issued, many probably are not being used, officials said. But restricting badges to those who cover state government year-round would pare that number to only a handful, by an unofficial estimate of veterans of the Annapolis beat.

All other reporters would be required to “get a visitor pass like everyone else,” said Cook, who said he had just come from a meeting Wednesday discussing the new policies.

Dori Henry, a spokeswoman for O’Malley, said on Thursday that no decision on changing the badges had been made and would not be made without first consulting reporters and the press association.

“We’re evaluating our process for issuing credentials and the security at our facilities,” Henry said. “No decision has been made on any changes, and we haven’t even decided if any changes are needed.”

Even so, she said reporters would not be allowed to update existing credentials or obtain new credentials until the review is completed in December. The 2014 General Assembly Session is scheduled to begin Jan. 8.

The Liner affair

Three years ago, with the advent of independent online media outlets and bloggers, state officials attempted to change how press credentials were issued to reporters.

Jay Liner, an attorney in Baltimore County who also wrote a political blog, filed suit against the state after he was denied press credentials.

In an interview on Thursday, Eric Easton, a professor of law at the University of Baltimore, said, “State government by its nature seems to want to try to try to exclude certain levels of scrutiny.” Easton, who represented Liner in his lawsuit, added, “Government needs to be open to coverage by all of the new media. The use of ‘year-round coverage’ should not be used as a device for exclusion because media is changing too fast.”

The lawsuit was dropped when O’Malley agreed Liner could have the press badge. Liner said on Thursday he has never used the badge. He no longer writes the blog.

Easton said a government standard that attempts to prevent ideologically based coverage is too subjective.

Murphy, the press association executive director, agreed and said such efforts verge on creating a government standard that would determine who can cover public events and officials.

“The security of facilities is a real concern,” Murphy said. “But I don’t like the idea that [government] can decide who is a legitimate journalist, and I don’t get why they want to limit it to those who are there full time. It doesn’t seem to get at the problem they’re concerned about.”