It’s time for transparency in Baton Rouge

   

Louisiana Conservatives are dealing with a shock announcement dropped late Friday evening. After riding to power on the largest Conservative mandate issued in our lifetimes, Republican House and Senate leaders decided to issue some committee chairmanships to Democrats. We’re told to wait until the end and judge them by the results. I remain hopeful that all of this political intrigue will work out to the state’s benefit. However, we’d all be remiss if we didn’t regularly remind them that our anticipation is higher than it’s ever been and we’re expecting them to deliver great things.

If you’ve been following Citizens for a New Louisiana for a while now you know that we’re a new kind of old-fashioned journalism organization. It’s an odd spot to be in because, let’s face it, the legacy media has become the opposite. The entire journalism industry has been co-opted by Leftist political activists who operate under the guise of reporters. Their forebearers built up tremendous legacies and reputations in their time. Thanks to that legacy, the brands they built are given special dispensation by our political leaders.

Unfortunately, upstart organizations like ours are not afforded these privileges. We spend as much (or more) time as legacy media in observing the government for the express purpose of informing you. However, under the previous administration, we were prevented from taking our rightful place among the ranks of journalists in and around Louisiana’s Capitol. The desperate need for transparency and change is what I’d like to explore with you today.

The back story

Citizens for a New Louisiana is built on the concept that regular citizens can know what’s going on in their government without any special privileges or permission. For years Jamie Pope, our Baton Rouge Director, has been going to the Capitol during legislative sessions as just a regular citizen. We never had, needed, or wanted a press pass. Even so, we were able to attend committee and floor debates and take photographs to accompany our informational articles. Everything was working just fine until one fateful day when it all changed.

On May 11th, 2021, while the session was well underway, we made the following Facebook post:

Paula Davis gets mad mad

We posted that image on Facebook at 6:57 pm. Within moments, Paula Davis popped up from her seat and made her way to the speaker’s podium. She interrupted the proceedings to show her phone to Clay Schexnayder. Thanks to the timing (under four minutes from the post), we didn’t have to wonder about what they were discussing.

No Photography hanging signs

Legislative Staff hanging up “no photography” signs in the gallery.

Since that moment, we’ve been stalked, harassed, and harangued by a particular member of the Sergeant at Arms staff. Next thing you know, our complaints of harassment moved then-speaker Clay Schexnayer to arbitrarily change “the rules,” sort of. Although he offered no official amendment to House Rules, he did have staff post signs forbidding photography in the gallery.

Even with these signs, anyone else in the house chamber could still take all the photos they wanted while the sergeant at arms staff stood by and watched. We even observed a professional photographer with a flash taking pictures from the gallery. No problem! However, if Jamie reached into her purse for a stick of gum, security would rapidly close in.

The harassment was so bad that we were forced to appeal (multiple times) to then-Sergeant at Arms Clarance “Smoke” Russ. At one point, he finally said all of our problems would go away if Jamie were to acquire press credentials.

So we got press credentials

Jamie's press passIt took us a little time to get through the process, but we followed the rules and acquired press credentials. Under the press rules, Jamie was now supposed to be on the house floor in the “media well.” Some time went by before she needed the credentials, though. For a week or two the House was mostly having committee meetings.

When the time came for the House to reconvene, Jamie made her way to the media well – per instruction. As Clay Schexnayder entered the chamber, he saw Jamie and told the Sergeant at Arms to remove her at once. We’ve always been rule followers. So, when Clarance “Smoke” Russ asked Jamie to “walk with me,” she did so. As soon as they were out of the chamber, he took her press credentials and said she was no longer press – by order of the Speaker.

Jamie was so upset that she had to leave the capitol for a few days. We followed all of the rules but were arbitrarily cut off anyway. All because of a compelling photograph taken in a public space during a public meeting.

So, I reached out to the credentials people

The Legislative Communication Office (LCO) is responsible for credentialing journalists in the Capitol. I had previously met with them in the process of acquiring credentials. So, it was just a matter of reaching out again to find out where we go from here. At the time, I had no plans to reveal that conversation to the public. However, it appears that everyone involved has since moved on.

It would have been great to have a copy of this in writing. However, in this business, it’s not uncommon for someone to want to have a conversation instead of creating a public record that, honestly, would have probably gotten people fired. So, a conversation ensued. Although the people of the LCO agreed that our work was important and journalistic in nature, they are also employed at the pleasure of the Speaker of the House. I was lavished with all the love, support, and best wishes possible up to the uncrossable threshold of getting Jamie’s credentials back.

Schexnayder’s leftovers need to be thrown out

So, that’s what happened to your eyes and ears in the state Capitol. We didn’t even try to challenge the rules in 2023 because we knew only one year of Shakedown Schexnayder‘s tenure remained. Well, we did try to take photos a few times just to see how long it’d take the Sergeant at Arms to engage. As it turns out, with an empty gallery (no security in sight) it took just three minutes for Jamie to be discovered, accosted, and escorted out.

So now that the tyrannous speaker Clay Schexnayder has finally descended into the bowels of history, it would be a great time to rescind his recent, terrible House chamber policies. As of this writing, Schexnayder’s rules are still in place. They can be found in the “other important information to know” section of the LCO press credentials page. The most problematic rules include:

  • Cameras (both still and video) are not allowed in either chamber’s balconies.
  • FACEBOOK LIVE STREAMING is prohibited in both chambers.
  • NO PHOTOS ARE ALLOWED FROM THE CHAMBER FLOOR
  • Cameras are not allowed in the Chamber Balcony (so nice, they had to include it twice)

As of this writing, those original brass colored “no flash photography” signs are still posted in the gallery. They serve as a reminder that only a short time ago photography was just fine, so long as there wasn’t a flash. However, since we began our work, all of these new, arbitrary rules have been added. Each one was added in response to Jamie trying to get photos for her articles in different ways. Her technique wasn’t a violation of the rules at the time. Nevertheless, she was ruthlessly harassed anyway. Then, they added another rule afterward to cover her new technique.

Will it be a new day in Louisiana?

Sometimes I think Barack Obama was talking about Clay Schexnayder when he said, “The only people who don’t want to disclose the truth are people with something to hide.” Whoever the people’s representatives are chatting with shouldn’t be a big secret. If our lawmaking process is truly open, taking photographs without disrupting the operation of a public meeting shouldn’t be forbidden.

Speaker Phillip DeVillier and I worked together to reopen Louisiana’s economy back in 2021. As a very reasonable guy, he knew that JBE’s terrible mandates were killing our small businesses. So, he initiated a process to intervene and invited others to participate. Now he has the power that he didn’t back then. With a stroke of his pen (or maybe even just a phone call), he can return the House Chamber to the people.

Isn’t it time for transparency? Isn’t it time to change the photography policy back to what it was in 2020?

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