Senator bars television coverage of committee session

A state senator has barred television coverage of his committee’s consideration of legislation criminalizing the enforcement of federal gun laws in Missouri.

As the senate’s General Laws Committee prepared Jan. 28 to consider the bill, chairman Brian Nieves announced: “Executive sessions are not videotaped, so videos will need to be turned off at this point.” Earlier, Nieves had ordered a reporter for a Columbia-based television station to remove his camera and tripod from the committee room.

“This is the first time I can ever remember that television coverage of a hearing was effectively prohibited since executive committee meetings were opened up in the early ’70s,” said Phill Brooks, the dean of the press corps and the director of the state government reporting program of the University of Missouri School of Journalism.

Nieves, a Republican from Washington, is the sponsor of the bill that would declare invalid federal gun laws and make it a crime for a federal employee to enforce them. The bill would also let school districts to designate trained teachers to carry concealed weapons.

The bill also would require a federal agent to notify the local sheriff before serving a warrant. A similar bill passed by the legislature last year failed to become law after Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed it.

According to Brooks, after the first hearing on the bill last week, Nieves announced that tripods would not be allowed in the committee room, and that a 24-hour notice would have to be given to his office for a camera to be brought in to videotape the meeting.

“Without a tripod, you’d get terrible shaky video,” Brooks said.

Television cameras mounted on tripods are used to cover all other legislative committee meetings.

On Monday, Nieves’ office was given notice by KOMU-TV, Channel 8 in Columbia, of a request to cover Tuesday’s hearing. Jessica Johnson, Nieves’ assistant, responded to the request with an email saying, “Yes, it is OK for them to video today. However, the senator is requesting that no tripods or machines that prevent the view of people be used.”

Brooks said that not only were tripods banned, but cameras were to be placed behind the seating for general public, meaning for video “all you will have is the back of the heads of the witnesses.”

“My reporter made the decision, and I agreed with it, that we would put up the tripod in the normal place where cameras have always been located to cover committee hearings,” Brooks said. “And if the senator objected, he could tell us.”

Nieves had one of his staff order the reporter, Michael Doudna, a journalism school student, to remove the camera and tripod.

There was no explanation for Nieves’ prohibition of videotaping of the committee’s executive session, in which senators discuss and vote on the bills before them. Doudna returned to the committee room without his camera to cover the meeting. The committee approved the bill.

Nieves did not respond to the GJR’s emailed and telephoned requests for an interview. But his assistant, Johnson, shared her email exchange regarding the television coverage request.

“Senator Nieves would prefer that you take up any further concerns you may have with that actual reporter,” Johnson said.

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