Opinion

‘I’m appalled’: Ejecting reporters from Kansas Senate unconstitutional — and unnecessary

Pro-Medicaid expansion demonstrators disrupt Kansas Senate

Demonstrators disrupted the Kansas Senate as lawmakers returned for its final day in session. GOP leaders had a chance to overrride Gov. Laura Kelly's tax and KPERS vetoes. (May 29, 2019)
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Demonstrators disrupted the Kansas Senate as lawmakers returned for its final day in session. GOP leaders had a chance to overrride Gov. Laura Kelly's tax and KPERS vetoes. (May 29, 2019)

Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle’s decision to remove reporters from the Senate chamber Wednesday was unconstitutional and unnecessary.

She should apologize — not to the reporters, necessarily, but to the people of Kansas, who were deprived of a complete and honest account of a dispute inside their state Capitol.

The confrontation unfolded as a group of protesters, angry about the lack of a vote on Medicaid expansion, shouted from a Senate gallery. Wagle called a recess, and officials swept in to remove members of the group.

But that wasn’t all. “Journalists were prevented from witnessing the arrests as police escorted reporters out of the chamber,” reported Jonathan Shorman, The Star’s Topeka correspondent. A Wagle staff member said journalists were giving the protesters “an audience.”

It was a thoughtless comment and a horrible decision.

“I’m appalled,” Gov. Laura Kelly, a former state senator, said Thursday. “The freedom of the press was denied, and I think that’s just unbecoming of Senate leadership.” She said she hoped Senate leaders would apologize.

State Sen. Dinah Sykes, a Democrat from Lenexa, echoed Kelly’s concern. “Reporters absolutely had a right to be there and report what was going on,” she said. “That’s part of transparency.”

Wagle’s office tried to defend the decision Thursday, saying the Senate was in recess because of the disruption, and nothing was missed.

“We never denied the press access to government proceedings,” communications director Shannon Golden said in an email. “Removal was purely due to safety reasons, and any other account is an embellished story.”

Was anyone really in danger? Journalists — who cover wars, national disasters, violent protests and criminal behavior — are pretty good judges of what is threatening and what isn’t. They wanted to stay.

And government proceedings aren’t limited to votes and debates. Arrests are a government function. In fact, independent journalism is most necessary when government uses its enormous police power. Kansans have an absolute right, in their building, to know if force is used properly.

Wagle blocked journalists from doing their jobs, and all of Kansas is less informed as a result. That seems to be her real goal.

There was also a worrisome threat Wednesday to revoke press access for reporters who declined to vacate the chamber. That threat was repeated by Golden in her Thursday email.

“We should remind you that it is a privilege that reporters are provided access to the chamber floor with a Senate press credential while in session,” she wrote.

The Star and the Wichita Eagle sent a letter to Wagle Wednesday calling those implied threats unconstitutional. For a state government that constantly confronts claims of excessive secrecy, banning reporters from observing the work of its lawmakers and police is clearly unacceptable.

A coalition of open government advocates has filed a complaint with Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, arguing that removing journalists violated the state and federal constitutions and the Kansas Open Records Act. The attorney general should give the incident his full, nonpartisan attention and ensure that Kansans’ rights are protected.

Order should be maintained during legislative sessions, from city councils and schools boards to the U.S. Congress. Government can’t function when everyone is shouting at everyone else. Reasonable rules to maintain decorum are needed.

But Wagle and her staff mishandled Wednesday’s disruption by attempting to prevent reporters and, by extension, Kansans from observing the protest. Self-government can’t function in secret, with voices suppressed, journalists denied access and the people left in the dark.

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