Capitolbeat letter to Tennessee
Many of you have no doubt been following the story of Tennessee statehouse reporter Erik Schelzig. He was ejected from the chamber for taking a photograph of House Speaker Kent Williams shortly after Williams collapsed last week. Following that, TN Rep. Joe Towns, Jr. filed HR 371, a resolution calling on the TN Capitol Press Corps to strip Schelzig of his floor credentials. Romenesko is collecting the coverage here.
(Ironically, Schelzig is president of the TN press corps, so that would be quite a conundrum. But that’s beside the point.)
This morning, Capitolbeat sent the following letter of concern to TN House Speaker Kent Williams.
The Hon. Kent Williams
Speaker of the House of Representatives
106th General Assembly
Office of the Speaker
19 Legislative Plaza, Nashville, TN 37243-0104
May 17, 2010
This letter is on behalf of Capitolbeat, the national association of statehouse reporters and editors. We are deeply concerned about your chamber’s treatment of AP reporter Erik Schelzig.
We understand that some in your chamber were upset by Mr. Schelzig’s attempt to photograph you after you collapsed. It was no doubt an alarming moment for many, and emotions were running high. But Mr. Schelzig was just doing his job, “despicable” or “distasteful” as some representatives found it. The Speaker’s health IS news.
If Mr. Schelzig had positioned himself in a way that obstructed medical assistance, it would have been appropriate for the Sergeants at Arms to direct him to move. But video of the scene and the angle of his photograph suggest that wasn’t the case.
We object to Mr. Schelzig’s removal from the chamber, as well as the reported name-calling and cursing he was subjected to in the course of performing his job. But we are even more concerned about HR 371, a resolution filed by Rep. Joe Towns, Jr., seeking to strip Mr. Schelzig of his floor credentials.
The resolution claims that Mr. Schelzig interfered with medical personnel. As we said, that doesn’t appear to have been the case. Instead, this looks like an attempt to punish a reporter for covering something a lawmaker didn’t want him to cover. It would set a very poor precedent if your chamber were to give this measure any consideration, let alone pass it. No reporter should ever be threatened with the loss of credentials for reporting a story that those in power don’t like. That may be the norm in dictatorships, but a functional democracy requires zealous reporting about public officials within the limits of the law.
We are relieved to hear that you’ve returned to good health, and that the incident wasn’t more serious. We ask that you talk to your Sergeants at Arms about appropriate procedures in such situations, reminding them that the First Amendment covers newsgathering activities as well as the reports we publish. And we urge you to take no legislative action on HR 371.
Cc: Rep. Joe Towns, Jr
Mr. Erik Schelzig, president, TN Capitol Press Corps
We’ll let you know what if any response we get. And please let us know if anything of this kind ever happens in your statehouse.