Is The NC Legislative Building Becoming Less Friendly To The Public?

Is The NC Legislative Building Becoming Less Friendly To The Public?

7:43am Jan 16, 2019
In this 2018 photo General Assembly police officer Chase Honeycutt, right, demonstrates new security equipment to members of the security staff at the Legislative Building in Raleigh. At the “People’s House” in North Carolina, lawmakers have long considered unfettered access to be symbolic of their commitment to accessible government. But increasing worries about mass shootings and angry protests have them siding further with security compared to that principle. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

The North Carolina Legislative Building opened in the early 1960s and was created to be a welcoming place for the public to see its government in action.

But in a recent column by NC Insider editor Colin Campbell, he argues that what’s supposed to be the "People’s House” is becoming both physically and symbolically less open to the people and the press.

Interview Highlights

On the purposeful way the statehouse was designed:

So if you walk in the front door, you're immediately greeted by this huge, red-carpeted staircase so you almost literally get the red carpet treatment. And it leads visitors directly up to the galleries where you can watch the House or the Senate in action.

Meanwhile, the lawmakers themselves are actually using these sort of drab, utilitarian stairwells that link the floors where their offices are with the actual entrance to the floor where they conduct business. So it's sort of a striking design. And while it's a confusing building to navigate, if you just want to come see your government in action, it's about as easy to find that aspect of the building as it could possibly be.

On recent changes to public access to the building:

There were a number of changes made just in the last year, and most noticeable to visitors – and this is one where I point out in my article that it's sort of a sign of the times and something that I think is probably necessary – but now there's almost airport-level security with X-ray scanners, metal detectors, security guards that you need to go through. So that's one aspect of it, one that obviously there's a solid reason behind that.

But the other changes that are noticeable: if you go in the building there's a lot of open courtyard areas indoors just outside of lawmakers offices. In the past, you used to be able to reserve those if you were an advocacy group and you wanted to set up some kind of informational display. So for example, some groups would hand out donuts to try to attract passers-by, some would have free blood pressure screenings and other types of, almost, gimmicks to get lawmakers as they're passing through the hallway to stop, have a conversation, hear about the organization's agenda. And a little less than a year ago that practice was banned. You can now reserve space, I think, in the basement if you want it. Most groups have not. That sort of ended. And apparently the concern was, it was getting too noisy for lawmakers, that they didn't like having this sort of festive, peak-of-democracy-type action right outside their doors.

On coming changes to the press area and what that means for journalism at the statehouse: 

The pressroom is being moved – or is scheduled to be moved – at the end of the month from its current location, which is on the main floor of the building. It's been on the main floor, just steps away from the House and Senate chambers and committee rooms, since the building was built in the 1960s. But it's not a fancy room: there are no windows, it's cinder block walls and cramped cubicles. But it does the trick because we're in a very prominent location in the building, very close to lawmakers, close to the action.

We're now scheduled to be moved to what's essentially the farthest possible corner of the building's basement, into a space that's going to be smaller, it's going to accommodate fewer reporters, and it'll be much more distant from the people that journalists cover. So it sort of makes it a little bit harder for us to do our jobs because we're not in the heart of the action.

(Ed.: This transcription has been lightly edited for clarity.)

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