News Media

Texas Journalists: Lt. Gov’s Threat to Arrest Reporters ‘Worrisome’

Joe Strupp

The Texas lieutenant governor's recent threat that statehouse reporters could potentially be arrested and jailed if their behavior is deemed "not respectful" of the legislature is being called "worrisome" and "absurd" by Texas journalists.

Cross-posted with permission from Media Matters for America.

The Texas lieutenant governor’s recent threat that statehouse reporters could potentially be arrested and jailed if their behavior is deemed “not respectful” of the legislature is being called “worrisome” and “absurd” by Texas journalists.

Several editors and reporters who have been covering the contentious abortion debate in the state Senate, which drew national interest last week during an 11-hour filibuster that derailed the legislation, said Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst’s threats of potential arrest during an interview Friday raised concerns.

During a June 28 interview with HotAir.com’s Ed Morrissey, Dewhurst said that his staff was reviewing security tapes of the Senate gallery to examine the behavior of reporters during the demonstration that occurred as Republican leaders failed to pass the bill before the legislative session expired. Dewhurst explained:

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“We have reports and I have my staff taking a look at the video, the internet video that we keep, we store, on the proceedings that evening and if I find as I’ve been told examples of the media waving and trying to inflame the crowd, incite them in the direction of a riot, I’m going to take action against them. That is wrong. That’s inciting a riot. That is wrong. And we have a provision in our rules that if people do not deport themselves with decorum, they’re not respectful of the legislative process, one of our rules says we can imprison them up to 48 hours. Of course that was out of the question with that many people, but it is, we take a democratic policy seriously.”

Within a day, Dewhurst’s office backpedaled from the threat, claiming they had reviewed tapes of the session and found nothing worth pursuing.

Still, several journalists are speaking out with concern that such a threat was even made and the option of arresting reporters even considered.

“As I listened to this, I said, ‘what the hell is this, you’re going to throw us in jail?'” said Wayne Slater, a longtime political reporter for the Dallas Morning News, who posted video of the HotAir.com interview on his blog. “The first thing I thought of is there are other countries that do this, where they arrest reporters whose work they don’t like or who don’t report things or act in the way the majority likes. It seemed absurd to me because there are countries that do this and we are not one of them.”

After Slater posted the interview video on his Morning News blog Saturday, he said Dewhurst’s office called him within hours to backtrack on the comments.

“They saw it and made a decision fairly quickly that they had to pull back from this,” he said. “To call and say no media did anything wrong.”

But that did not stop other journalists from criticizing the original comments and worrying about what they could mean for future reporting.

“As a newspaper editor, the lieutenant governor’s statement I found worrisome,” said Steve Proctor, managing editor of the Houston Chronicle. If any action were taken against a Houston Chronicle reporter, they would be defended vigorously. Any editor is going to consider that worrisome.”

He said even a hint of such action can be negative to reporters’ work: “I want to be able to cover the news without interruption or interference, so you are always worried when there is interference on the information.”

Mike Leary, editor of the San Antonio Express-News, offered similar concerns.

“It’s never a good idea to arrest people who are the messenger rather than actual participants,” Leary said. “Our reporters are covering the news and illuminating other people about what is going on, something like (an arrest threat) that is not a good idea.”

Dewhurst’s comments followed the contentious debate on June 25 over a Republican-backed bill that would ban abortions in Texas after 20 weeks without exception for victims of rape or incest and impose strict restrictions on doctors and clinics that provide abortions. Critics say the bill is unconstitutional and designed to prevent women from having access to abortion services.

State Sen. Wendy Davis, a Democrat, drew national attention that day when she conducted an 11-hour filibuster to delay a vote on the bill, which was eventually shelved when the session ended. The Texas state senate is set to hold a new special session beginning today during which the bill is expected to be re-introduced

As they prepared Monday to cover the new session, reporters who had been at last week’s debate offered criticism of Dewhurst’s arrest threat.

“Obviously [arresting reporters] would be ridiculous,” said Jonathan Tilove, an Austin American-Statesman reporter who covered the session. It presumes there was a riot that was incited. There was no riot, there was a raucous display. And they barely even gaveled to try and restore order. If [the arrest threat] was serious, it would be a terrible thing.”

Gromer Jeffers of the Dallas Morning News, a 13-year statehouse and political reporter, called the talk of arrests “surprising” and said it could have a “chilling effect” on coverage.”

“The whole allegation was puzzling,” he said. “When there is an event like that, I don’t know any reporter who is out in a crowd trying to incite riots; we’re trying to write stories, do what we do.” He later added, “It would have a chilling effect if in the process of legitimately doing our job we had to worry about an elected official or other authorities threatening to arrest us.”

Mike Ward, an Austin American-Statesman reporter for 25 years, also was at the Senate session and found nothing to warrant arrest.

“The press corps was just covering what was going on,” he recalled Monday. “I didn’t see any reporters who were inciting the crowd.” He later added, “If they came in and arrested all the reporters for doing their job that would concern me. It is reporters doing their job, there’s no crime there.”

Brittney Martin, a Dallas Morning News reporter who covered the filibuster, echoed that view.

“We knew we didn’t do anything wrong, that we were behaving right,” she said. “It is outlandish the idea of arresting the media, just because we are such a staple of the floor every day, every session.”

Evan Smith, CEO and editor in chief of The Texas Tribune, an online outlet that posted streaming video of the filibuster, called the claims of media bias “absurd.”

“Of course it’s absurd to suggest that the media would have any role in stirring up the crowd,” he said. “Our job is to report. Of course it would be ridiculous.”

Harvey Kronberg edits the influential Quorom Report, an insider publication on Texas statehouse coverage. He said any arrest attempt would likely draw opposition within the state Senate and spark a “senatorial rebellion.”

“Senators were on the floor and know the reporters’ behavior and that [claim] was completely false,” he said.

Donnis Baggett, executive vice-president of the Texas Press Association and a former reporter for Dallas Morning News, also defended reporters.

“We would find it hard to believe that a member of a legitimate Texas capital press corps would have engaged in any activity that is outside the professional norm,” he said. “All the time I spent there as a newsman and as a lobbyist, I’ve never witnessed anything of that nature.”

News Sexual Health

State with Nation’s Highest Chlamydia Rate Enacts New Restrictions on Sex Ed

Nicole Knight Shine

By requiring sexual education instructors to be certified teachers, the Alaska legislature is targeting Planned Parenthood, which is the largest nonprofit provider of such educational services in the state.

Alaska is imposing a new hurdle on comprehensive sexual health education with a law restricting schools to only hiring certificated school teachers to teach or supervise sex ed classes.

The broad and controversial education bill, HB 156, became law Thursday night without the signature of Gov. Bill Walker, a former Republican who switched his party affiliation to Independent in 2014. HB 156 requires school boards to vet and approve sex ed materials and instructors, making sex ed the “most scrutinized subject in the state,” according to reproductive health advocates.

Republicans hold large majorities in both chambers of Alaska’s legislature.

Championing the restrictions was state Sen. Mike Dunleavy (R-Wasilla), who called sexuality a “new concept” during a Senate Education Committee meeting in April. Dunleavy added the restrictions to HB 156 after the failure of an earlier measure that barred abortion providers—meaning Planned Parenthood—from teaching sex ed.

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Dunleavy has long targeted Planned Parenthood, the state’s largest nonprofit provider of sexual health education, calling its instruction “indoctrination.”

Meanwhile, advocates argue that evidence-based health education is sorely needed in a state that reported 787.5 cases of chlamydia per 100,000 people in 2014—the nation’s highest rate, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Surveillance Survey for that year.

Alaska’s teen pregnancy rate is higher than the national average.

The governor in a statement described his decision as a “very close call.”

“Given that this bill will have a broad and wide-ranging effect on education statewide, I have decided to allow HB 156 to become law without my signature,” Walker said.

Teachers, parents, and advocates had urged Walker to veto HB 156. Alaska’s 2016 Teacher of the Year, Amy Jo Meiners, took to Twitter following Walker’s announcement, writing, as reported by Juneau Empire, “This will cause such a burden on teachers [and] our partners in health education, including parents [and] health [professionals].”

An Anchorage parent and grandparent described her opposition to the bill in an op-ed, writing, “There is no doubt that HB 156 is designed to make it harder to access real sexual health education …. Although our state faces its largest budget crisis in history, certain members of the Legislature spent a lot of time worrying that teenagers are receiving information about their own bodies.”

Jessica Cler, Alaska public affairs manager with Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest and Hawaii, called Walker’s decision a “crushing blow for comprehensive and medically accurate sexual health education” in a statement.

She added that Walker’s “lack of action today has put the education of thousands of teens in Alaska at risk. This is designed to do one thing: Block students from accessing the sex education they need on safe sex and healthy relationships.”

The law follows the 2016 Legislative Round-up released this week by advocacy group Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. The report found that 63 percent of bills this year sought to improve sex ed, but more than a quarter undermined student rights or the quality of instruction by various means, including “promoting misinformation and an anti-abortion agenda.”

Roundups Politics

Campaign Week in Review: ‘If You Don’t Vote … You Are Trifling’

Ally Boguhn

The chair of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) this week blasted those who sit out on Election Day, and mothers who lost children to gun violence were given a platform at the party's convention.

The chair of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) this week blasted those who sit out on Election Day, and mothers who lost children to gun violence were given a platform at the party’s convention.

DNC Chair Marcia Fudge: “If You Don’t Vote, You Are Ungrateful, You Are Lazy, and You Are Trifling”

The chair of the 2016 Democratic National Convention, Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH), criticized those who choose to sit out the election while speaking on the final day of the convention.

“If you want a decent education for your children, you had better vote,” Fudge told the party’s women’s caucus, which had convened to discuss what is at stake for women and reproductive health and rights this election season.

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“If you want to make sure that hungry children are fed, you had better vote,” said Fudge. “If you want to be sure that all the women who survive solely on Social Security will not go into poverty immediately, you had better vote.”

“And if you don’t vote, let me tell you something, there is no excuse for you. If you don’t vote, you don’t count,” she said.

“So as I leave, I’m just going to say this to you. You tell them I said it, and I’m not hesitant about it. If you don’t vote, you are ungrateful, you are lazy, and you are trifling.”

The congresswoman’s website notes that she represents a state where some legislators have “attempted to suppress voting by certain populations” by pushing voting restrictions that “hit vulnerable communities the hardest.”

Ohio has recently made headlines for enacting changes that would make it harder to vote, including rolling back the state’s early voting period and purging its voter rolls of those who have not voted for six years.

Fudge, however, has worked to expand access to voting by co-sponsoring the federal Voting Rights Amendment Act, which would restore the protections of the Voting Rights Act that were stripped by the Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder.

“Mothers of the Movement” Take the National Spotlight

In July 2015, the Waller County Sheriff’s Office released a statement that 28-year-old Sandra Bland had been found dead in her jail cell that morning due to “what appears to be self-asphyxiation.” Though police attempted to paint the death a suicide, Bland’s family has denied that she would have ended her own life given that she had just secured a new job and had not displayed any suicidal tendencies.

Bland’s death sparked national outcry from activists who demanded an investigation, and inspired the hashtag #SayHerName to draw attention to the deaths of Black women who died at the hands of police.

Tuesday night at the DNC, Bland’s mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, and a group of other Black women who have lost children to gun violence, in police custody, or at the hands of police—the “Mothers of the Movement”—told the country why the deaths of their children should matter to voters. They offered their support to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton during a speech at the convention.

“One year ago yesterday, I lived the worst nightmare anyone could imagine. I watched as my daughter was lowered into the ground in a coffin,” said Geneva Reed-Veal.

“Six other women have died in custody that same month: Kindra Chapman, Alexis McGovern, Sarah Lee Circle Bear, Raynette Turner, Ralkina Jones, and Joyce Curnell. So many of our children are gone, but they are not forgotten,” she continued. 

“You don’t stop being a mom when your child dies,” said Lucia McBath, the mother of Jordan Davis. “His life ended the day that he was shot and killed for playing loud music. But my job as his mother didn’t.” 

McBath said that though she had lost her son, she continued to work to protect his legacy. “We’re going to keep telling our children’s stories and we’re urging you to say their names,” she said. “And we’re also going to keep using our voices and our votes to support leaders, like Hillary Clinton, who will help us protect one another so that this club of heartbroken mothers stops growing.” 

Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, called herself “an unwilling participant in this movement,” noting that she “would not have signed up for this, [nor would] any other mother that’s standing here with me today.” 

“But I am here today for my son, Trayvon Martin, who is in heaven, and … his brother, Jahvaris Fulton, who is still here on Earth,” Fulton said. “I did not want this spotlight. But I will do everything I can to focus some of this light on the pain of a path out of the darkness.”

What Else We’re Reading

Renee Bracey Sherman explained in Glamour why Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine’s position on abortion scares her.

NARAL’s Ilyse Hogue told Cosmopolitan why she shared her abortion story on stage at the DNC.

Lilly Workneh, the Huffington Post’s Black Voices senior editor, explained how the DNC was “powered by a bevy of remarkable black women.”

Rebecca Traister wrote about how Clinton’s historic nomination puts the Democratic nominee “one step closer to making the impossible possible.”

Rewire attended a Democrats for Life of America event while in Philadelphia for the convention and fact-checked the group’s executive director.

A woman may have finally clinched the nomination for a major political party, but Judith Warner in Politico Magazine took on whether the “glass ceiling” has really been cracked for women in politics.

With Clinton’s nomination, “Dozens of other women across the country, in interviews at their offices or alongside their children, also said they felt on the cusp of a major, collective step forward,” reported Jodi Kantor for the New York Times.

According to Philly.com, Philadelphia’s Maternity Care Coalition staffed “eight curtained breast-feeding stalls on site [at the DNC], complete with comfy chairs, side tables, and electrical outlets.” Republicans reportedly offered similar accommodations at their convention the week before.