The Alaska Legislature’s Bizarre Priorities

The Alaska State Capitol Building, home of the Alaska Legislature

The Alaska State Capitol Building, home of the Alaska Legislature

Alaska has many real problems. Alaska is faced with a real, if mostly self-inflicted, fiscal crisis. We have an appalling rate of suicide, highlighted by the recent tragedies in Hooper Bay. The state has the highest rate of rape and other assaults on women in the nation. We have communities washing into the sea. We must find a way to get our natural gas to market. There is no shortage of urgent, important emergencies facing the Alaska Legislature.

But what is the Legislature’s highest priority? Apparently, imposing unconstitutional prior restraints on free speech. Like this one:

When there is a medical emergency on the Capitol complex premises, cameras and sound equipment are to be turned off and remain off until instructed otherwise. During emergencies everyone is to remain still unless given instructions to vacate the area. There will be no warning given for a breach of this rule. Any violation of this rule will result in immediate and automatic revocation of the violating member’s press pass.

Allegedly, the new rule was adopted in response to press actions when Rep. Ben Nageak (D, Barrow) suffered a medical emergency on the state House floor that led to his departure from the Capitol building on a stretcher. Now that’s news. A photo of a state legislator on a stretcher is newsworthy. Denying a photographer the right to take a photo, a prior restraint on the freedom of the press, would require a compelling reason. The claim by Rules Chair Craig Johnson (R, Anchorage) is that the reporters interfered with the emergency crews. There doesn’t seem to be any evidence of that; certainly, no emergency crews have complained. It may be that another House member complained to or about the reporters, but that and $0.50 will get you a cup of coffee at Woolworths.

There are perfectly good laws on the books to guard against interference with emergency crews. AS 18.08.075 makes its a Class B misdemeanor – punishable by up to 90 days in jail and a $2,000 fine – to interfere with an emergency services worker. Why does the Legislature need to jerk the press credentials of a reporter, photographer or videographer who is doing their job? What compelling purpose is served? Might not that energy be better addressed to a real, compelling crisis?

WC thinks it is part of a pattern of closing off the public from information that the Legislature deems might be embarrassing or inconvenient. Set aside the majority caucus’s propensity for doing everything important behind closed doors in caucus meetings. That’s an exception to the Open Meetings Act that the Legislature has driven a truck through, isn’t it?

The Legislature has found it very convenient to pretty much completely defund the Alaska Public Offices Commission. APOC may have its problems, but it’s the only real safeguard we have against the more egregious kind of campaign law violations. APOC has been slashed to the point that it has been rendered nearly ineffectual. So still more information is being lost to voters, and the state legislature, especially the Republican majority coalition, is that much less supervised.

And now they want to impose arbitrary restrictions on your right to see what is happening in the Legislative chamber. For an implausible, feeble reason. But if the real goal was to create more secrets, to defeat the First Amendment, to frustrate the public’s right to know, well, the new rule will serve those ends.

At least until a legal change is mounted.