|NMU||FLORIDA||Newsgathering||Mar 21, 2002|
Florida speaker bans reporter from House floor
- The editor of the Palm Beach Post said Tom Feeney barred the reporter from attending legislative sessions because of a critical story, not because of allegations that he pushed two of the speaker’s aides.
The top official in the Florida House banned a Palm Beach Post reporter earlier this month from the House floor for the rest of the state’s legislative session, accusing the journalist of engaging in disruptive behavior.
House Speaker Tom Feeney said in an Associated Press article that the reporter, Shirish Date, pushed two of his aides following a press conference, “offending” and “frightening” members of his staff.
“Members of my staff don’t deserve to be harassed verbally, but especially they don’t deserve to be harassed physically,” Feeney told the AP.
But Edward Sears, editor of the Palm Beach Post , said Feeney banished Date from the House floor because the reporter wrote a story critical of one of his aides, not because of Date’s attempt to speak with the aide.
“The speaker reacted to a really very unflattering story,” Sears said. “It’s pure retaliation from a guy that has the power to do that. We’re dealing with content, not contact here.”
A spokesman for Feeney said the House speaker was no longer commenting about the situation.
Date’s story, dated Feb. 28, focused on legislative aide Bridgette Gregory, suggesting that she was unqualified for her job and that she used her state computer e-mail account to exchange messages with lobbyists and Republican Party workers about Feeney campaign events.
The Post later ran a correction saying the e-mails released from Feeney’s office to the Post do not show Gregory used her state computer e-mail account for these purposes. Instead, Gregory corresponded with other Feeney staff members about arrangements for campaign appearances and fund-raisers.
Sears said there was nothing unusually aggressive about Date’s pursuit of the aide.
In a letter asking Feeney to lift the ban on Date, Sears said he had received conflicting accounts from the speaker’s press secretary about the level of aggression demonstrated by Date. Sears said he heard Date “grabbed” the aide, as well as he “made a move toward” her, along with comments from Feeney saying, “I didn’t say he grabbed her.”
Sears also said Feeney never addressed Date about his behavior, nor did he complain to the Post. Date didn’t even realize he had been banned from the chamber until six or seven days after Feeney issued the ban, according to Sears. Date has been banned from the chamber until the current legislative session concludes, although, according to Sears, he continues to try to attend sessions despite always being turned away.
“Regardless of which version of events you and your staff choose to go with, it’s clear that the alleged contact was not significant enough to warrant a complaint to Date or the Post at any time,” Sears said in the letter.
Sears said measures other than banning Date from the floor could have been taken to correct Date’s behavior if necessary.
“If you don’t want to speak to a reporter on the House floor, so be it. However, denying access of one reporter to the entire House membership is improper,” Sears said in his letter to Feeney.
Sears said he is concerned banning Date will set a precedent and further Florida’s trend toward a more closed government.
Sears said: “It is a sad day that you go from what used to be an extraordinarily progressive legislature and really one of the most open governments to these shenanigans.”
© 2002 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press