Reporters who cover the state Capitol will return to the Senate floor Monday, nearly three weeks after Republicans who control the chamber had consigned them to its gallery.
“On Monday morning it is my expectation, after some significant and fruitful discussions with our friends from the Fourth Estate, that they will be returning to the floor of the Senate in a little bit of a reconfigured fashion,” Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr., R-James City, said Friday on the Senate floor.
“We’ve come to a good mutual resolution,” Norment said.
On Jan. 13, the first day of the General Assembly session, the Senate, in which Republicans hold a 21-19 edge, voted along party lines for a change in Senate rules that removed reporters’ access from the floor, where journalists have covered the state Senate for decades.
State and national media organizations denounced the surprise move as a blow against public transparency.
To ease movement on the Senate floor, reporters will now have access to six desk chairs, each with a fold-over leaf to support a computer. Previously there were tables on each side of the rostrum that could accommodate four people apiece.
Floor seats for credentialed media will be on a first-come, first-served basis. If demand for floor seating exceeds availability, each media organization will be limited to one floor seat. Other journalists from the organization could then sit in the gallery.
Reporters will be able to use laptop computers, but will no longer be able to plug them in while working on the Senate floor.
The Virginia Capitol Correspondents Association said in a statement: “Denying reporter access to the Virginia Senate floor session was a mistake that could have been avoided; restoring it was the right thing to do.
“While the revised floor access arrangement places additional limitations on our members’ flexibility to cover proceedings, it is workable — and returning is an important step toward ensuring we can do our jobs and provide accurate and timely reporting.”
It added: “The VCCA will continue to promote media access in the Capitol — and the public’s right to know that the people elected to serve Virginia are conducting its business in the best traditions of open and transparent government.”
Jim Nolan, a political reporter at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, is president of the Virginia Capitol Correspondents Association.
Sen. Thomas A. Garrett Jr., R-Buckingham, who had called for restoring reporters’ access to the Senate floor, issued a statement through his 5th District congressional campaign, hailing the result.
“Today, all those who support transparency in government will celebrate a victory for the First Amendment to our Constitution,” said Garrett, who is seeking the Republican nomination for the seat. (Rep. Robert Hurt, R-5th, is not seeking re-election.)
“As a result of my willingness to stand and fight for principles of Constitutional governance, press freedom, and legislative transparency, Republican leadership has allowed the sunshine of a free and open press back into Virginia’s Senate,” Garrett said.
“I’m proud to have stood on principle in leading this fight, even if it makes me unpopular with the Republican Establishment,” Garrett said.
About three-fourths of states in the U.S. allow reporters on the floor of their Senate and House chambers and many provide seats or desks for them to use, according to The Associated Press.
The press tables that had been on opposite sides of the rostrum were removed before senators voted Jan. 13. Reporters then had to cover Senate sessions from the gallery above the floor. Journalists said that vantage point made it harder to hear senators’ comments and observe their interactions and to get copies of floor amendments and vote tallies.
On Jan. 20 a delegation of journalists who cover the state Capitol met with key state senators to discuss the removal of reporters’ access to the Senate floor.
There was no resolution of the issue at that meeting, which lasted about an hour, but the journalists and senators aired their concerns and characterized it as a productive discussion.
Senators attending the Jan. 20 meeting in a conference room off the Senate chamber included Norment; Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw, D-Fairfax; Senate Majority Whip William M. Stanley Jr., R-Franklin County; and Ryan T. McDougle, R-Hanover, chairman of the Senate Republican Caucus.
During that meeting the journalists sought a return to work space on the Senate floor. Topics that were discussed also included Republican senators’ concerns about limited space on the Senate floor and about reporters’ adherence to long-standing rules governing when journalists can interact with senators on the floor.
Under the new arrangement, rules of conduct on the Senate floor are more clearly spelled out, as is a graduated set of sanctions on media access to the chamber should reporters violate the rules.