Maine’s State House Facilities Committee, which oversees operation of the State House complex, voted Wednesday to recommend that the doors to the State House be locked and inaccessible to the press after hours, unless a scheduled meeting is underway or unless a reporter phones to request special permission to enter.

The explanation was that public access after hours is limited to scheduled meetings. For that reason, the committee said, the public — and therefore the press — has no compelling need for access.

Wrong.

For those who aren’t aware, much of government business is conducted outside scheduled meetings. It is conducted in corridors, in legislative offices, in the cafeteria, and just about any nook in that building that supports conversation at any hour of the day.

Lawmakers have perfected the business of business after hours, and the press has an absolute interest in tracking that business and in reporting developments, deals and decisions made in those off-hours.

The Facilities Committee made an astonishing recommendation for secrecy, and one that was properly and righteously reversed less than a day later after Maine’s State House press corps rose up in protest.

And here’s why: The primary role of the press is to inform and educate the public about what government is doing. We take that role very seriously. Locking the press out of the State House is equal to locking out the public.

The watchdogs that we are, we barked rather loudly to be let back in.

We can be ferocious like that when it comes to public access.

Here’s what happened:

The press has had open access to the State House forever, but a recent technology upgrade to security badges prompted scrutiny of a long-ignored policy that barred press access after hours.

Long ignored, as in, no one remembers it ever being enforced.

Ever.

So, rather than review and possibly revise the policy to match long-held practice, a decision was made in the Office of the Executive Director to recommend adherence to the dated policy, overriding access and without consulting the credentialed press corps.

That decision was spurred on by the Capital Police Department, which had raised security concerns about what the press might be up to in the building after dark, or maybe on a weekend.

When the press first objected to the lockout, we were told technology wouldn’t allow press credentials to be programmed for after-hours access.

When we pushed for clarification, it seems the programming actually is available.

As for the security concerns, Capital Police Chief Russell Gauvin told the Facilities Committee there had been “many” instances of the press accessing unauthorized areas of the State House, and there was too much risk that members of the press corps might enter unlocked offices and rifle through confidential files.

When the press asked for details of those instances, the chief said there had been one incident years ago (he couldn’t remember when) that involved two journalists “eavesdropping” on a “private” meeting. The case was advanced to the AG’s Office, but neither person was prosecuted. No one ever told the journalists or their employer there was an investigation, and their State House credentials were not revoked.

In addition, Gauvin said, three or maybe four broadcasters wandered into places they shouldn’t have over the years, and had to be redirected. Perfectly unintentional, he admitted, and the errors were never repeated.

So, “many” instances of the press breaking protocol and risking building security was a gross overstatement.

And, when asked how many credentials had ever been revoked because journalists had violated State House protocol, Executive Director Grant Pennoyer said none, to his knowledge.

So, members of the State House press corps have not been a behavioral threat.

(Of note: These conversations with the chief and then the executive director both occurred outside of a regularly scheduled meeting, and both were entirely about the business of government.)

Here’s the reality: Members of the working press at the State House are credentialed only after proving they work for an established media company and after undergoing a criminal background check. They have, for lack of a better term, earned security clearance to be in the building.

Our job, our only job, is to represent the public’s interest. And to push back as hard as we can whenever that interest is compromised. Always.

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