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Iowa House denying press credentials to influential blogger

January 25, 2019
Laura Belin poses at her home in Windsor Heights, Iowa, on Friday, Jan. 25, 2019. The Republican-controlled Iowa House defended its decision Friday to deny press credentials to Belin, an influential liberal blogger who has covered the Legislature since 2007. Belin has appealed the decision and is considering legal action. (Courtesy Laura Belin via AP)

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — The Republican-controlled Iowa House defended its decision Friday to deny press credentials to an influential liberal blogger who has covered the Legislature for years, a position that could invite legal action.

Laura Belin, who operates the Bleeding Heartland blog, said the House chief clerk hasn’t cited any valid reason for the denial, which she suspects is tied to her critical coverage of Republican leaders and policies. Belin, who has reported on the Legislature since 2007, has appealed the decision and is considering legal action.

Belin applied for formal credentials for the first time to cover this session, which would grant her work space and easier access to briefings with key lawmakers, among other things. Staff in the Republican-controlled Iowa Senate indicated that her request would be granted for that chamber. But Carmine Boal, the chief clerk of the Iowa House, told Belin in a Jan. 3 email that “press credentials are not issued to members of the public.”

In a statement issued through an aide Friday, Boal stood behind her decision, arguing that she doesn’t consider Belin to be a member of the media for reasons she didn’t explain.

“The House rules limit access to the floor of the House to ‘representatives of the press, radio, and television’,” she said. “Those that meet those requirements have received credentials. Those that do not have been denied. House Rules have been applied uniformly and without consideration of content.”

Esteemed Iowa news executive Michael Gartner has praised Belin as one of the best political reporters in Iowa and national publications have recognized her work. She routinely breaks news and writes in-depth analyses of legislation and campaigns. While the Legislature is in session, her blog typically gets 1,500 or more unique daily visitors, including lawmakers, staffers and other insiders.

Belin is open about her liberal views and compares herself to reporters for left-leaning publications such as Mother Jones and The Nation. Iowa House rules do not further define who qualifies as a member of the press and Belin noted that other non-traditional outlets have been granted credentials in the past.

“The fact that I don’t pretend to be objective, that I don’t hide my opinion about some of the political issues I cover, I don’t think that should have any bearing on whether I am considered a member of the media,” she said.

Belin has been critical of Democratic lawmakers, as well, including pieces in which she called for the resignation of a Democratic senator accused of sexual misconduct and criticized some legislators for not raising enough money to help their party compete with the GOP.

Boal told Belin in a follow-up email about the denial that the House has used Congressional rules governing press galleries for guidance. But those rules wouldn’t appear to bar Belin, either, as they require credentials to be granted to applicants who are engaged in news reporting.

Belin has asked Boal to reconsider the decision several times over the last three weeks, but Boal hasn’t responded. Belin, whose late father founded one of Iowa’s most prominent law firms, says she has consulted with an attorney about taking legal action but hopes it doesn’t come to that.

“I would hope they would recognize they are not entitled to making a content-based speech restriction,” said Belin, who previously covered Russian politics as a staff member and freelancer for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

Belin said the slight isn’t going to affect her coverage of the Legislature, which started its session earlier this month.

Several journalists, the Iowa Freedom of Information Council and others used social media to call on the Iowa House to grant Belin credentials. But Iowa Republican Party chairman Jeff Kaufmann, a former lawmaker, wrote on Twitter that the denial was justified, calling her a “partisan amateur blogger.”

“If she is issued credentials than any person that has a passing interest, a modicum of writing ability, and a partisan axe to grind should receive the credential,” he wrote. “She is no more a journalist than I am.”

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Follow Ryan J. Foley on Twitter: https://twitter.com/rjfoley

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