Coghill should reverse cellphone ban

As yet another sign of how government wants to duct tape the hands of the press to keep us from doing our jobs, at the start of the Alaska Legislature on Jan. 15, Sen. John Coghill told the capitol press corps that as Senate Rules Commitee chair he was banning cellphones inside the Senate chambers.

According to the Juneau Empire, Coghill said he forbade cellphones for “inordinate communication and disruption.” Legislators had already been forbidden to use cellphones for similar reasons.

We don’t cover the capitol, but here in Homer we frequently cover government meetings. In the Cowles Council Chambers at Homer City Hall, not only do we use smart devices, so do the public. Sometimes we want to post breaking news to our website or social media, snap a photo of speaker sign-up sheets or record testimony or debate.

The public also uses smart devices. One woman livestreams council meetings. Others take photos of mayoral recognitions. Even council members use smart devices, the city issued iPads.

We recognize that the Legislature has a bit more decorum than Homer. You can’t wear hoodies or hats. The dress code is a bit tighter. All of that is good and part of the tradition of the Legislature.

Smart devices help us do our jobs. The Empire said reporters in the chambers use smart phones to record the proceedings or take photos because they don’t have other cameras. They take pictures of the vote board, or use their phone as a wireless hotspot, or to communicate with staff photographers.

Smart phones have become popular because they’re portable and convenient. You know that. We know that. You’d think an Alaska senator would know that.

Reasonable rules can be written that would preserve the Senate decorum and allow people to use smart phones so they’re not disruptive. We don’t know about that “inordinate communication” thing. It’s our job to communicate, even if that can get a bit messy.

Is Coghill saying he wants less of that? Has he talked to the Alaska House about its own disorganization? And does he know about the First Amendment?

Fortunately, Coghill might change his mind. He told the Empire he wasn’t aware of other uses for smartphones. “It’s probably the disruption that I’m going to focus on,” he said. “How do we allow use of it without disruption? I’ll probably restrict it to usage around the media table.”

We urge Coghill to reconsider the ban on smart phones in the Senate chambers. Practicalities aside, there’s a larger principle at stake: the ability of the press to freely report the news.

Hampering the press and taking away our tools sends the wrong message to the watchdogs of goverment. It says that government would like us to look the other way. Mild as these threats might be, they can accumulate over time until you get a meek, mild press that would please authoritarian leaders like Vladimir Putin.

Fortunately, we have the First Amendment. The free American press is one of the few businesses that gets its charter from the U.S. Constitution. Sen. Coghill, please don’t push us. We’re a bit protective of that right.

Repeal the cellphone ban.