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Reporters briefly barred from legislative special session

From the Winter 2001 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 5.

From the Winter 2001 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 5.

Despite Florida’s warm climate, journalists covering the election found themselves left out in the cold one evening at the state Capitol in Tallahassee.

Due to increased security, the press was denied access or told to leave the building on Dec. 4, while members of the Legislature discussed the presidential vote recount, according to the Associated Press.

Normally, the media can attend after-hour meetings at the Capitol, but the Capitol police took extra measures to ensure public safety during the election and did not let anyone into the building after 5 p.m.

When reporters complained that they could not complete their work, the Capitol police amended their policy. At a meeting on Dec. 5, the police and media representatives discussed new guidelines.

The police “quite readily admitted that they made a mistake,” said Dick Shelton, director of government affairs and special projects for the Florida Press Association.

Shelton said the only stipulation from the police was that press members sign a log book to ensure no one would be locked in the building overnight.

Kathleen Anders, communication director for the Department of Management Services in Tallahassee, said police did not intentionally ban reporters from the building.

“We didn’t say, ‘you can’t have access,'” Anders said. “It was just the way the security changes happened.” The lock out of reporters totalled approximately eight hours, she said.

One month later, when the ballot recounting began, access to the count went relatively smoothly, according to Barbara Petersen, executive director of the First Amendment Foundation in Tallahassee. However, there were a few squabbles over some minor details in Palm Beach County.

“They were doing this recount in the emergency management center,” Petersen said.

“It’s a glass room and there obviously wasn’t room for everybody inside that room, so they would only let one or two or three people and the camera and everybody else had to stand outside. If you were outside you couldn’t hear. They had microphones but they weren’t speaking into the microphones.”

Peterson noted that some rules and regulations were necessary in order to accommodate the large numbers of people who wanted access to the ballot counting rooms. However, she added, the law instructs that the public’s interest in access also be considered.

“We had the international press corps here and it would be very difficult to accommodate everyone. It was a very unusual circumstance, but we are supposed to have reasonable, meaningful access, too,” she said. –ML