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Gowan backs down on de-facto press ban

The speaker of the Arizona House bowed to widespread pressure and announced Tuesday morning that he is rescinding a background check policy that targeted reporters, keeping media critics from working on the floor of the legislative chamber.

Although reporters will not have security badges allowing access to legislative offices replaced, they will be able to sign in and work in the chamber, officials said.

David Gowan, a Sierra Vista Republican who is competing in a candidate-heavy congressional primary race in far-flung CD 1, instituted a policy Thursday that kept reporters from sitting at their usual desks on the House floor unless they consented to an extensive background search.

The move was met with criticism and suggestions of a legal challenge.

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The policy would have not allowed any member of the press with a criminal record, including felonies and some misdemeanors, to directly question lawmakers in the chamber.

Critics contended that Gowan was targeting Hank Stephenson of the Arizona Capitol Times, who investigated Gowan's use of state vehicles as he campaigned for Congress. Gowan had to repay taxpayers $12,000 after Stephenson's report.

The reporter has a 2014 misdemeanor trespassing conviction on his record.

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In solidarity with what was perceived as an attempt to retaliate at Stephenson, none of the reporters who routinely cover the House signed a form consenting to background checks, and sat upstairs in the public gallery to observe sessions Friday and Monday.

Gowan's move, billed as a "security measure," was met with condemnation and mockery by the press. Democratic lawmakers were shut down when they attempted to raise the issue on the floor, but behind the scenes discussions with Republican leaders led the speaker to dial back the restrictions.

Gowan has quietly let lawmakers carry firearms on the floor of the House, removing a "no weapons allowed" sign at a back door used by legislators to create a loophole in enforcing a state law barring deadly weapons in public buildings.

Gov. Doug Ducey said Monday that he feels "immensely safe" around Arizona reporters.

"I'm always concerned about how our state looks," he said. "I think what I'm going to do as governor is promote and advocate for the positive things that are happening in the state and I'll let you guys work out your spat with the House."

"My philosophy is that I may not like all the questions that you ask and you may not like all the answers that I give, but this is part of a transparent government," Ducey said, according to the Arizona Republic. "And if you show up for work, I should show up and answer your questions."

A number of GOP lawmakers had sent Gowan a letter asking for beefed-up physical security for the building, but that letter did not address the long-standing policy of allowing the press to work on the House floor. Some who signed the letter told the Republic they were surprised by the press restrictions.

Stephenson's editor at the Cap Times, Jim Small, pointed out that Gowan had twice before attempted to block the reporter from doing his work, including pressure on the newspaper to fire Stephenson.

The attorney for the First Amendment Coalition of Arizona, Dan Barr, blasted Gowan's move to kick reporters off the floor in a Friday letter to the speaker, saying, "no one is fooled by what is going on here."

"Given the lack of facts supporting the new rule and the absence of real security measures, it is obvious that your actions have been motivated by your displeasure with the reporting of Arizona Capitol Times reporter, Hank Stephenson, which has led to the Attorney General's current investigation of your use of state resources and personnel for your congressional campaign," Barr wrote, outlining his stance that "selective denial of access to a governmental forum based on content is unconstitutional."

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Gowan had maintained that the restrictions were due to a protest in the House last month, but that took place in the public gallery.

"The safety and security of the employees and members who work in the building remain a priority for leadership and me," he wrote Tuesday in a memo walking back the background check policy. "I had a duty to everyone who works in the House to act quickly and decisively to provide a safe environment in the wake of the dangerous events that you all witnessed on March 28."

"Although many of you have asked that the House heighten security measures, some of you have also expressed concern about the policy's effect," he wrote. "Having heard those concerns and taken them to heart, I am suspending the background check requirement effective today and for the balance of the legislative session."

Stephenson tweeted a picture of Gowan's memo, with the note, "#Victory."

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