WASHINGTON – Reports that the Senate may have considered enforcing a rule prohibiting members of the press from interviewing senators outside of “designated areas” in the Capitol raise serious First Amendment concerns and highlight the precariousness of speech protections on the Hill, PEN America said today.

Earlier this afternoon, various outlets reported that the Senate Rules Committee had changed existing rules for press access and would require reporters to seek permission from the committee and the Senate Sergeant-at-Arms before interviewing senators in Capitol hallways.  Later, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) issued a statement saying that there had been no change, though existing rules would permit the committee to block reporters from conducting interviews in hallways.

“Not only is the principle of openness in our government more important than ever before, selective enforcement of these rules could directly violate the First Amendment,” said Gabe Rottman, PEN America’s Washington director.  “We have questions of our senators that need answering.  Rather than silencing journalists, Congress should be focused on how to make public areas in Congressional office buildings safe for everyone.”

PEN America also noted that enforcement of the rule could lead to discriminatory or selective enforcement.  Permission could be withheld from only certain news outlets, or from citizen journalists and bloggers, which would raise direct First Amendment concerns as discrimination based on the viewpoint of the individual or outlet denied permission to interview. 

Additionally, Supreme Court precedent suggests strongly that laws that disproportionately burden the news media could be unconstitutional even if they would be permissible if applied to everyone.  Requiring members of the news media to seek permission before speaking to a senator, but permitting any member of the public to ask a senator a question in the hall without permission could run afoul of those cases.

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PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible.

CONTACT
Sarah Edkins, PEN America: sedkins@pen.org+1 646.779.4830