The Vermont Statehouse has tightened up its credentialing process for journalists ahead of Gov. Phil Scott’s budget address Thursday. The stricter requirements come after an activist posed as a reporter and disrupted the governor’s inaugural speech earlier this month.
Media members who wanted to cover Scott’s address from the press gallery were required to email the sergeant at arms by noon Wednesday. Previously, reporters could sign in on the day of the event.
The governor's communications office detailed the new process in an email sent Tuesday to members of the media.
Reporters and photographers must show photo ID to pick up their yellow press badges ahead of the speech. Only those who follow the new registration rules will get access to the House balcony for the event, Sergeant at Arms Janet Miller said.
The press credentials are required by capitol security only for major addresses, when a larger than normal media contingent typically crowds into a small area at one end of the balcony, she added.
Most other times, press and other members of the public have nearly unrestricted access to much of the Statehouse. In fact, open access to the building is enshrined in the Vermont Constitution, which reads: "The doors of the House in which the General Assembly of this Commonwealth shall sit, shall be open for the admission of all persons who behave decently, except only when the welfare of the State may require them to be shut."
The latest move is not designed to restrict access for the press, but rather to give the sergeant-at-arms' office a little time to assess who is seeking a pass, Miller said.
“I’m not vetting them to decide who can go up there,” Miller said. “I just want to know who they are.”
To get a press badge during the inaugural address on January 10, members of the media needed only to write their name, organization and phone number on a legal pad kept in the sergeant-at-arms' office.
That process allowed Ralph Corbo, an East Wallingford activist and vocal critic of Scott, to get a press badge on the morning of the address by listing a fake news organization.
Corbo said he went to the capitol to protest Scott’s speech, hoping to do so by throwing fake money in the air and having it flutter down on the legislators below.
But when he tried to get up to the balcony, he was turned back by a state trooper, who informed him the area was for media with credentials only.
An occasional letter writer to Vermont publications and an activist in favor of more access for third-party political parties, Corbo said he didn’t see why he shouldn’t be able to get a press pass, too.
“I consider myself a citizen reporter,” Corbo said.
So he went to the sergeant-at-arms' office, wrote his name and phone number on the pad, and listed his organization as “Earth Liberation Front News.”
No such organization exists, but Corbo said he hopes to start it up someday, perhaps as a website or a compilation of his musings on corruption in state government.
“It turned out all I had to do was tell them I had my own news organization, and I got a press pass,” Corbo said.
Wearing a red-and-black-checked jacket and flashing his new pass, Corbo got up to the balcony area. Soon after Scott began speaking, Corbo threw the fake bills into the air and yelled about how money should not be allowed to compromise Vermont's clean air and water.
“That give you something to write about?” Corbo quipped as he left the press gallery. He was quickly ejected from the building by Capitol Police but faced no charges.
The incident prompted Miller to say she would “revisit” the way press credentials were distributed.
“We don’t want to restrict anybody from reporting, but we’ve got to take our security into consideration,” she said at the time.
The new policy is concerning to Mike Donoghue, executive director of the Vermont Press Association, because it reflects an increasing trend of government agencies requiring media to receive credentials for access to which they have a right.
“This is troublesome that they want to register people, and is an eroding of the First Amendment as we see it,” Donoghue said.
He said he wonders why the sergeant at arms wouldn’t engage in a conversation with the media before changing its policies. Donoghue says his organization represents the interests of 11 daily and four dozen weekly news outlets in the state.
“If they don’t reach out to us, we may try to reach out to them and see what really gives here,” Donoghue said.
Miller called the change a “work in progress” and said her office would not be vetting news organizations to determine which ones would get passes.
Corbo, though, would not be allowed back into the Statehouse press gallery because of his past conduct — not because of the nonexistence of his media organization, she said.
Correction, January 24, 2019: A previous version of this story misstated where in the Statehouse Corbo is no longer allowed.