After five-year struggle and a First Amendment lawsuit, Iowa blogger gains press credentials and wins financial settlement

The Iowa State House in Des Moines | Source: GPA Photo Archive

A liberal blogger’s First Amendment lawsuit put an end to years of repeated denials of her requests for press access to the Iowa legislature. 

Key Players

Laura Belin, an Iowa blogger and radio commentator who focuses on state politics, is an outspoken self-described liberal who has frequently criticized the policies of the state’s conservative legislature. She has covered the Iowa legislature since 2007. 

Bleeding Heartland is a blog for which Belin has been the primary author and lone editor since 2008. Founded in 2007, Bleeding Heartland reports mostly on Iowa politics featuring work from over 100 contributors.

Meghan Nelson, the chief clerk of the Iowa House of Representatives, has held her position since July 2019.

Further Details

In January 2019, Belin applied for press credentials to access and report on the annual legislative session of the Iowa House of Representatives. Such credentials, she asserted, would provide her a workspace and better access to briefings and meetings, and also allow her easier access to speak with lawmakers.

But according to court documents, Nelson’s predecessor told Belin that press credentials were not given to “members of the public,” and that her blog did not qualify. 

Her rejection was controversial and made national news, as Belin was a well-regarded reporter who had been featured in multiple national outlets. Many organizations claimed the denial was unfounded, as well as an opportunity for the Republican-controlled legislature to squelch her coverage, which reflected her liberal political views. 

A local Iowa newspaper, The Storm Lake Times Pilot, said Belin was “singled out for denial while other political journalists with conservative points of view were allowed credentials,” and that her rejection was “an attempt to silence independent journalism, plain and simple.” 

PEN America, a nonprofit organization with a stated mission of protecting free expression, sent a public letter to the Iowa House, stating “We hope you will agree that freedom of the press, as a bedrock of our democratic institutions, is an issue that transcends political differences.” 

According to The Associated Press, various journalists, the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, and many social media users called on the Iowa House to grant Belin credentials.

In January 2020, Nelson rejected Belin on the grounds that the Iowa House did “not credential outlets that are nontraditional/independent in nature.” Per The Associated Press, there was actually no such policy in the House. This reason was also inconsistent with the reasons given for Belin’s prior denials. She continued to apply until 2024 and faced repeated refusals. In some cases, the denials were given without a stated reason. 


Federal lawsuit filed, Iowa legislature folds

On Jan. 19, 2024, attorneys from the Institute for Free Speech, a nonprofit organization with a stated mission of defending First Amendment rights, filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of Belin. They contended that the House’s repeated and arbitrary negative responses violated her First Amendment press rights. 

The lawsuit alleged that Belin was being actively shut out by an “ever-shifting credentialing system” that was treating her unfairly because of her political leanings. Her legal filing received widespread attention and stirred multiple organizations to criticize the apparent bias shown by the House’s decisions.

Five days later, in response to the lawsuit and mounting pressure, the Iowa legislature granted Belin press credentials, without public comment. 

Legislature’s concession touted as First Amendment victory

The decision was widely characterized as a victory for Free Speech. 

“This case underscores the First Amendment principle that public officials cannot manipulate press credential policies to play favorites or suppress critical coverage,” a representative of the Institute for Free Speech stated. 

Kirstin McCudden, managing editor of the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, said, “Every time a journalist is hindered and denied access to our elected officials, it affects all of us. We are all members of the public first and we trust journalists to be one way that we get information.”

In an editorial, the Des Moines Register said Republicans “took what should have been an unremarkable bookkeeping matter and made it another example of them dismissing the merit of independent reporting on the people’s business.” The Register also stated that “the sequence of events reinforces the conclusion that there was never any neutral principle about journalism or workspace at issue here.”

Belin told the Register that she hoped this would set a precedent and make public officials “reluctant” to deny access to reporters. She was allowed to report on the 2024 legislative session with full access. 

On April 2, the lawsuit was settled, with the state of Iowa paying Belin $49,000. As of April 22, 2024, she retains her press credentials.