The parliamentary press gallery is challenging a plan to impose RCMP security screening measures on new members, including fingerprinting for criminal record checks.

The gallery, which marked its 150th year as an organization in 2016, formally opposed in principle the proposal from a House of Commons administrative committee during an annual meeting at the National Press Theatre today. The gallery's executive will seek answers on why the screening is necessary, what threshold for criminal background could potentially bar access to Parliament Hill, and why fingerprinting is necessary.

The initial proposal suggested that Canada's spy agency, CSIS, be involved in the screening process, but that was dropped after resistance from the gallery executive.

Members raised concerns the new measures could infringe on freedom of the press. 

Press gallery president Tonda MacCharles, a veteran reporter with the Toronto Star, said journalists have been sent to cover Parliament Hill by employers who have entrusted them to do the job. She questioned the rationale for security screening.

"It's a concern from a journalistic perspective that police or some other body would seek to somehow verify who we are or why we should be there," she told CBC News after the meeting. "How would they assess this? Is this assessed via our sources, is this assessed via the performance of our duties? What is it based on? Many questions were raised by the membership here today."

Limiting access for journalists

MacCharles said there has never been a security incident in the Commons involving a journalist and that new policy should not be based on "hypotheticals."

Screening could deny or limit access to the decision-makers, committees and witnesses on Parliament Hill that are critical for reporting. 

"If you shut down access to somebody based on who knows what criteria, you limit their ability to do their job as a journalist," MacCharles said.

The press gallery has the authority, delegated from the House of Commons, to accredit its own members, who are vetted to ensure they are bona fide journalists based in Ottawa covering the federal government.

There are now 332 active members, including 57 from CBC and 24 from Radio-Canada.

Fingerprints for criminal checks

The proposal from the House of Commons made public today recommends that all new members of the press gallery be subject to mandatory screening to access Parliament Hill, which would include the RCMP running the person's fingerprints against a database to determine a match with anyone convicted of a criminal offence. The same measures are recommended for MPs' staff, contractors, volunteers and interns.

The proposal says that if security concerns are identified during the screening process, the corporate security officer may grant or refuse access.

The proposed changes follow an independent security assessment and an internal audit of physical access to the Parliamentary Precinct carried out in 2015.

It concluded that mandatory site access security screening should be conducted for all individuals who regularly access buildings within the Parliamentary Precinct, according to a fact sheet created by the House of Commons.

'Adverse information'

It said the Corporate Security Office, which is responsible for security screening, will evaluate the information provided by the RCMP in context, and give an individual the opportunity to address any issues before a decision is made to refuse or grant access, according to the fact sheet.

If "adverse information" is flagged by the RCMP, the security office will assess the nature of the information and its seriousness, the timing of the event, the surrounding circumstances such as the frequency of incidents and the individual's age at the time of the incident and the degree of rehabilitation since the incident, the fact sheet reads.

The information also says the RCMP fingerprinting records will be removed after 120 days.

Heather Bradley, a spokesperson for the House Speaker's office, said discussions and consultations are underway to "strike an appropriate balance between safety and access to parliamentary sites."

"The security of all is the top priority," she said in an email. "The proposal and implementation plan for the security screening process will be shared once it has been finalized and approved by the Board of Internal Economy."