Arthur Kohl-Riggs, a local citizen journalist and blogger, said he has struggled to find a balance between conducting his work at the Capitol and abiding by the gallery rules, which include no video or audio recording and no usage of electronic devices such as a laptop, cell phone or camera.
These new rules put forth by state lawmakers to govern citizen and media conduct in the state Capitol have proved controversial. Kohl-Riggs had his press credentials revoked in fall of 2011 by the Wisconsin Capitol Correspondents Association, a journalist-run organization independent of the Legislature. WCCA was replaced by the Wisconsin Capitol Correspondents Board controlled by the Legislature at the beginning of the year.
“[The revocation] interfered with my ability to provide the news I was providing to the people who rely on me,” Kohl-Riggs, who ran against Gov. Scott Walker in the Republican gubernatorial recall primary, said.
Kohl-Riggs said he filmed and took photos from the gallery, an action he asserts is his right, citing the Wisconsin Open Meetings Act of 2009.
The act states the law does apply to the state Legislature. However, the law does not apply when it conflicts with a rule of the Senate or Assembly.
Gillian Morris, spokesperson for Senate Minority Leader Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee, said the committee has not met since the start of the biennium in January 2013, a “new phenomenon with this Republican administration and leadership.” Larson is a member of the Senate Organization Committee, the body responsible for deciding Senate gallery rules.
Instead of meeting in person, Morris said Senate pages hand deliver ballots for each committee member, which also include chairman Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau; Senate President Michael Ellis, R-Neenah; Assistant Senator Majority Leader Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend; and Sen. Dave Hansen, D-Green Bay.
“The fact they have not been allowed for the committee to meet in person means the senators haven’t been able to ask questions or voice concerns in a public forum, in a forum where the media and public could be present to hear what they have to say,” Morris said.
Grothman said the choice to meet is made by the chairs of the committee, Fitzgerald and Ellis. Grothman added he prefers to meet in person to discuss ideas, rather than conduct business by ballot.
The Assembly Organization Committee has also not met during the biennium. However, the Assembly Rules Committee met in June 2013 for an executive session.
Assembly Majority Leader Scott Suder, R-Abbotsford, who is chair of the Assembly Rules Committee, said the committee plan to meet in September and finalize rules in October.
Suder said the committee’s rule-making will be flexible with changing media, but the functions of the media and gallery are always separate.
“If individuals choose to, they can get credentials,” Suder said. “We aren’t barring anyone in the media from recording and reporting. But they have to follow the process and rules to get access.”
Ted Blazel, Senate sergeant at arms, said the Legislature and his office work with the media to determine which press can get credentials, and press can maintain credentials if they abide by the rules.
Suder added WisconsinEye, a news organization that posts videos of legislative session and some Legislature committee meetings, is a great resource for the public and media to see the legislators in action.
Kohl-Riggs said he is critical of WisconsinEye because of its inefficiencies and extensive copyright rules.
“If I wanted to send a clip to my grandma of what her senator said, there are pop-ups, links, terms and conditions agreements and then you have to find a two minute segment in a four hour video,” Kohl-Riggs said. “It doesn’t do the service people would like it to do.”
Despite criticism, Dan Romportl, a staffer in Fitzgerald’s office, said the process has been running well and is expected to continue through the end of the session.
Phone calls and emails to the office of Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Burlington, who also serves as Assembly Organization and Rules committees chair, were not returned.