Post-Gazette loses lawsuit to enter polling places

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Reporters and photographers don't have a First Amendment right to enter polling places during elections to report on the process, a federal judge ruled Tuesday.

U.S. District Judge Nora Barry Fischer issued a 58-page opinion dismissing a lawsuit by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette against Secretary of the Commonwealth Carol Aichele and the Allegheny County Board of Elections.

The newspaper sought first to invalidate a state law barring anyone except voters and election officials from coming within 10 feet of polling places. It then asked the judge to approve a consent decree it negotiated with the county elections board that would have allowed media into polling places to record voters signing in, but not casting ballots.

Judge Fischer approved neither proposal.

The state law doesn't single out reporters for different treatment, nor has its enforcement treated the Post-Gazette any differently than others, she found. "It suffices to say that the present circumstances do not justify 'federal-court oversight' of the manner in which election officials in Allegheny County discharge their duties on Election Day," she wrote.

She declined to approve the consent decree, which the county accepted but the state opposed. "The Court has already determined that [the polling place access law] can be constitutionally applied to media representatives," she found. "A consent decree cannot be used to override a valid state statute."

"We respectfully disagree with Judge Fischer's conclusions in this regard," said the Post-Gazette's attorney, Frederick Frank. The newspaper will appeal to the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and will seek an expedited argument so it can be heard before Nov. 6, he said.

At such a hearing, the newspaper would seek a temporary injunction allowing media access to polls on election day.

"We continue to believe that there's a First Amendment right of the media to be present in polling places" without disrupting or recording voting, he said.

The Post-Gazette had said that the state law compromised its ability to cover the sign-in process at polls. This, it said, was of particular concern with the Nov. 6 start of voter identification laws.

State courts have since loosened the identification requirement for this year. That doesn't undermine the newspaper's argument, said Mr. Frank.

"In addition to the voter identification law, the Post-Gazette continues to believe that there are few more important governmental functions than voting and that as representatives of the media we have the right, in the manner that we have requested, to observe that governmental function and to report on it in future years," he said.


Rich Lord: or 412-263-1542.


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