On December 6, the gap between my classes allowed me only a brief window to drive to the Capitol to capture some video of the Michigan legislature’s attempts to ram through a flurry of last-minute bills.

Like an old firehorse who lunges into action when the bell rings, I hurried to the Capitol to report on stories that other reporters might miss for the Lansing Online News, the experiment in citizen journalism I co-publish.

But as I walked toward the Capitol, a speaker announced that the Michigan State Police were refusing to allow anyone to enter. Surely that couldn’t be true. Not while critical bills were still being debated and passed. Not in a democracy. 

Politicians have a duty to represent the public interest, not make decisions behind closed doors.

But when I tried to go inside myself, officers refused to let me or any protesters enter. Why? Overcrowding? Then why weren’t they letting at least some of us in when others streamed out? I alternated between shock and fury.

As a journalist, I know access is paramount. As someone who had also previously spent almost nine years training law enforcement officers, this show of force violated everything I valued about policing in a democratic society.

Pressed for time, I interviewed a few protesters on the Capitol steps before snapping a picture of an MSP patrol car parked on the sidewalk, a symbol of intimidation.

I teach journalism. I love journalism. For the past five years, I have been doing what I can as a citizen journalist to fill in the cracks as the number of paid professionals continues to decline.

One of the joys of the digital age is that people like me can cover the stories we care about, whether it’s a Tea Party rally or a forum on the supposed dangers of sharia law. When MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow linked my video of this summer’s hearing on the abortion bill on her blog, more than 7,000 people watched overnight.

Citizen journalists provide an important service in ensuring government transparency and accountabilityif we can get the story.

I teach a freshman seminar on free speech every spring at MSU. I tell my students about how important it is to live in a country where you don’t need government credentials to be a reporter, where citizens have the right to be part of a free press.

But if legislators are allowed to bar the citizens from the very source of our democracy, is that true anymore?

By Bonnie Bucqueroux

A National Magazine Award-winning writer, Bonnie Bucqueroux teaches journalism at Michigan State University’s School of Journalism. For almost nine years, Bucqueroux was associate director of the National Center for Community Policing at Michigan State University’s School of Criminal Justice.

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