UTAH — Venting their frustration with reporters “trying to hide behind the skirt of free speech,” members of the Utah Senate in late February approved a bill requiring journalists to register as lobbyists when their stories influence the success or failure of a legislative measure. The provision was later removed from the final measure by a conference committee.
Utah law currently exempts journalists from lobbying disclosure rules. In a 24-4 vote, Utah senators passed an amendment, sponsored by Sen. David Watson (R-St. George), which withdraws the exemption when the purpose of a story is to “directly influence the passage … amendment, or postponement of legislative or executive action.”
The bill as passed earlier by the House of Representatives did not include the amendment, and the provision was removed from the final version of the bill approved by a joint conference committee.
But Deseret News reporter Jerry Spangler said he was told by Senate leaders that the measure was sure to surface again in the next legislative session.
During debate on the amendment, some senators had raised questions concerning its constitutionality, Spangler said.
Watson, an attorney, said reporters should be considered lobbyists because they continually advocate an openness in the legislature that is crucial to “the way they make a living.” Reporters, therefore, are working from an agenda that constitutes a lobbying practice in some respects, he argued.
Watson acknowledged, however, that the amendment probably would not change the content or number of stories being generated about the legislature.
Sen. Robert Montgomery (R-North Ogden), pleaded with senators to remove the amendment, arguing that “good common sense tells us in no way can we consider reporters to be lobbyists.”
The Reporters Committee regularly files friend-of-the-court briefs and its attorneys represent journalists and news organizations pro bono in court cases that involve First Amendment freedoms, the newsgathering rights of journalists and access to public information. Stay up-to-date on our work by signing up for our monthly newsletter and following us on Twitter or Instagram.