Bill Lueders, Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council: "The Legislature needs to be very clear about why it is rejecting a given applicant."
Glenn Schmidt, managing editor of Union Labor News, applied for press credentials to cover Gov. Scott Walker's State of the State address weeks in advance of the Jan. 22 event.
Union Labor News, which has been in existence for more than 70 years, is published under the umbrella of the South Central Federation of Labor.
On Jan. 13, Schmidt received an unsigned email denying his request. "In using the recommendations for credentialing put forth by the Wisconsin Capitol Correspondents Board, we have determined you do not meet the standards for approval."
Schmidt says the email did not cite where the publication fell short.
"It mystifies me what part of the standards we didn't meet, and they didn't tell us," he says.
Schmidt says he spent a fruitless couple of weeks trying to get answers from legislative leaders. "We've made some inquires since then, and they haven't responded to those yet."
Schmidt is not alone. Rep. Dianne Hesselbein (D-Middleton) questioned the denial in a Jan. 22 letter to Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester).
"The publication meets the criteria put forth in the Qualifications for Credentials as recommended by the Wisconsin Capitol Correspondents Association," wrote Hesselbein. "With your decision to allow other specialized publications access, such as the Catholic Herald, it does appear you are specifically targeting the Union Labor News by denying press access."
An aide to Hesselbein confirms that she never received a response from Fitzgerald or Vos.
Union Labor News has appealed the decision in a letter to Vos.
"Please provide the specific reasons for why our press credentials were denied," wrote Kevin Gundlach, the editor of the paper and president of South Central Federation of Labor.
Kit Beyer, communications director for Vos, says the appeal is pending before the Joint Committee on Legislative Organization.
Beyer emailed a statement to Isthmus explaining why the press credentials were denied.
"The credentialing request was made by the South Central Federation of Labor whose website says that it 'mobilizes action for legislative and electoral campaigns.' Assembly Rule 25 states that no person is allowed on the floor who is a registered lobbyist or is 'directly or indirectly engaged in defeating or promoting any legislation before the Assembly."
It was determined, Beyer added, "that the registrant did not meet the standards for approval."
When asked why the unsigned letter to Schmidt cited recommendations from the correspondents association as the reason for denial and not Assembly Rule 25, Beyer responded, "The applicant did not meet [the] standards of approval by Wisconsin Capitol Correspondents Board, which incorporates Assembly rules."
Phil Brinkman, city editor of the Wisconsin State Journal and secretary of the Wisconsin Capitol Correspondents Board, says the group does not control access to legislative chambers.
"We sent [lawmakers] a revised set of criteria that we suggested they use in their own assessment of who to give credentials to, and that was it," Brinkman says. That letter (PDF) was sent in March 2013. "We sent them and never heard back," he says.
Brinkman says reporters have never controlled the process. "The question of who grants credentials has always rested with the Legislature.
"It seems to me if somebody is going to be denied based on these criteria, the least leadership can do is specify where they fall short," he adds.
Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, agrees. "The council would urge the Legislature to take an expansive view of state media for the purpose of granting press credentials," he says. "A multiplicity of media outlets is good for democracy. At the very least, the Legislature needs to be very clear about why it is rejecting a given applicant, and provide a fair mechanism for appeal."
Lueders also questions the rationale of applying Assembly Rule 25 to publications.
"If advocating, directly or indirectly, for or against legislation is grounds for denial, then the Legislature probably should be denying press credentials to every news organization that publishes editorials, which on frequent occasion do advocate for and against legislation."
[Editor's note: This article has been corrected to note that Phil Brinkman is the secretary of the Wisconsin Capitol Correspondents Board and to amend Kit Beyer's quote.]