Capitol Building in Harrisburg (Capital-Star photo by Cassie Miller).
Pennsylvania Capitol Police prevented at least two TV news crews from entering an office building in the state Capitol complex to cover a press conference Tuesday.
A Capital-Star reporter also was told that press were not being allowed into the building by a Capitol Police officer, but was able to get in through a different entrance.
Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration closed the state Capitol to the public on Dec. 3 due to rising COVID-19 infections. Security also has been increased in recent days in response to threats of armed protests by extremist supporters of President Donald Trump.
Republicans in the state House scheduled the 10 a.m. press conference in the Matthew J. Ryan Office Building, an annex to the main Capitol, where they were to announce the formation of a task force on state economic policy.
Troy Thompson, spokesperson for the Department of General Services, which oversees the Capitol Police and the buildings, said the issue all boiled down to “miscommunication” between the department and House Republicans.
“Individuals with key card access — such as reporters — “are always allowed in,” Thompson said. He added that the department hoped “to not have this type of miscommunication in the future.”
In a statement, House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, expressed concern over the incident, calling it a violation of the presses’ constitutional rights.
“Whether today’s events were deliberate or a mistake, the Wolf administration should take every step necessary to ensure that today’s denial of media access never happens again,” Benninghoff, who spoke at the conference, said in the statement.
Even during earlier Capitol closures in spring, the building was always open to press. Since then, Republicans and Democrats alike have been live streaming events.
Wolf also faced transparency questions early in the pandemic, when he went weeks without holding an in-person press conference.
While naming transparency as a governing priority, Wolf’s administration also did not process public record requests for months into the pandemic.
Paula Knudsen Burke, a former Pennsylvania Capitol reporter who now is an attorney with the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press, said keeping reporters out of the Capitol was particularly concerning on a session day when legislative work is underway.
“When the public is barred from the building because of COVID, someone needs to tell the public what’s happening,” Knudsen said.
“Hopefully everyone is on the same page going forward that the press needs to be in the building,” she added. “It’s a no brainer.”
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