Appeals court rules on news media access to polling places

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Media organizations in Pennsylvania don't have the right to report from, or take photos and video within, polling places, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled yesterday.

The 53-page opinion by three judges comes in response to a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette lawsuit against the state and the Allegheny County Board of Elections in which the newspaper sought court permission to report on the voter sign-in process, particularly in light of the implementation of new voter identification rules.

The three judges found that the Post-Gazette's arguments "hinge on one particular principle: that the [U.S. Constitution's] Framers 'thoughtfully and deliberately selected [the press] to improve our society and keep it free.'"

The judges found that the constitution contains "protections for some news-gathering activity," but also found that no precedent for any argument that "the press is entitled to any greater protection under this right than is the general public."

They found that while voting in the U.S. was a public act in colonial times, the country later took up the secret ballot. "While the act of voting -- and the process by which voting was carried out -- began its life as a public affair, our Nation's history demonstrates a decided and long-standing trend away from openness, toward a closed electoral process," the judges wrote.

"Moreover, there is a very real possibility that the presence of reporters during the sign-in period, when individuals are necessarily exchanging personal information in preparation for casting a private vote, could concern, intimidate or even turn away potential voters," they continued.

"Our initial review of the opinion, which was received yesterday, is that it is not consistent with the precedent on the right of the media of access to government events, and it is contrary to the decision of another circuit on exactly the same issue," said Frederick Frank, the attorney representing the Post-Gazette in the matter. "For these reasons, we are continuing to pursue our request that the U.S. Supreme Court grant certiori in the matter" and rule on the case.

Pennsylvania law does not allow anyone within 10 feet of polling places except for elections officials, registered poll watchers and voters registered to that site. The newspaper argued that the law is unconstitutional and has been unevenly enforced.

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Rich Lord: rlord@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1542 or Twitter @richelord


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