When the Wyoming Legislature convenes Friday for a special session, it will do so at a time of historic challenges for our state.
Wyoming is in the midst of a pandemic with no vaccine or cure, leaving us few options for protection beyond distance. That defense has triggered an economic collapse that eclipses any downturn we’ve ever witnessed, with one out of every 10 Wyoming workers having filed for jobless benefits in the past two months, and more unemployment likely on the horizon. And even as our economy begins to reopen, it will be some time before Wyoming’s top industries – energy and tourism – recover.
The difficulties brought on by the coronavirus are occurring against an existing backdrop of economic upheaval. Coal production continues to falter. Oil prices are sagging under the weight of too much supply and not enough demand. Even if the pandemic had never happened, our lawmakers would still be faced with profound questions: How do we pay for our schools, our police, our services?
And so it is vitally important that when lawmakers meet next week to begin the enormous task of navigating a way through this storm, the public can see into and engage in the process. At first, it appeared the people tasked with keeping the public informed – journalists – were in danger of being kept on the sidelines. Thankfully, legislative leadership indicated Friday that they were working on a way to get reporters into the Capitol.
Lawmakers plan to conduct the session in two ways. While all legislators will participate through online video, some will gather in the Wyoming Capitol and participate from there. Earlier this week, it appeared as if reporters would be shut out of the Wyoming Capitol at this critical time.
On the surface, this might seem like an acceptable proposition given the pandemic. But it runs counter to the very idea of a democratic society, in which the responsibility to include the public increases with the stakes. Citizens have a right to know how their government is responding to this crisis. They have a right to ask questions. That is the process.
And that’s where journalists come in. Journalism is enshrined in the Constitution because it holds government accountable and allows citizens to participate in our democratic society. Most of us have jobs or other responsibilities that make it difficult to watch hours of legislative meetings and nearly impossible to question our leaders. That’s a role journalists perform on the public’s behalf.
That process can’t truly happen from a computer screen. As veterans of the Legislature will tell you, much of the actual lawmaking occurs outside the chambers of the House and Senate. It happens in the hallways and in the alcoves, where lawmakers meet informally to devise plans and hash out compromises. When reporters are there, the public can be part of this process. Without journalists at the Capitol, the story of our state’s historic response to the pandemic will be lost to history.
Yes, there are safety considerations. But we’ve seen that they can be overcome. The Trump administration, even with its often acrimonious relationship with the press, has found ways to include reporters for in-person briefings with the president. So has Congress and many state governments.
This act of newsgathering is protected under the First Amendment. And that protection is there for exactly these moments. We enshrine our rights for times when they would be threatened. Our leaders in Wyoming have recognized this. Consider the protests that have taken place here. They were not halted, even though they may have violated the prohibition against large gatherings. Our politicians knew that the First Amendment right to redress our government was critical. So is the First Amendment freedom of the press.
After first suggesting reporters would be left out, lawmakers now appear to be reconsidering. That’s good. Journalists should be in the Wyoming Capitol as legislators decide how to spend $1.25 billion of public money during a crisis. We are living through historic times. Journalists are needed to document them.
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