Post-Gazette sues to take photos, videos at polls
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Hoping to photograph and videotape the voter sign-in process in the coming general election, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Wednesday sued state and county officials in federal court, claiming that a law restricting access to polling places violates freedom of the press.
The lawsuit replaces and broadens an action in the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas in which the newspaper had asked a judge to modify a 2008 court order barring photography in polling places.
"The only way that First Amendment rights can be fully exercised is if we can do first-hand reporting," said attorney Frederick N. Frank, representing the Post-Gazette.
The management of polling places is especially important this year in light of the new voter identification law, he said. Proponents have said that the law will prevent fraud, while opponents said it will suppress voting.
A state law bars access to polling places except to election officers, clerks, machine inspectors, overseers, watchers, people who come to vote, voting helpers, law enforcement and court officials.
In 2008, the Post-Gazette sued and Common Pleas Judge Joseph James issued an order saying the newspaper could photograph around, but not inside of, polling places. Last month, the newspaper asked him to alter the order to allow it to photograph or videotape voters as they sign in, unless they object. The newspaper wrote that it does not want to record people in the act of voting.
"Voting is one of the very few shared American experiences and there's something out of synch when the free press is restricted from recording Americans in their most important civic action," said Post-Gazette executive editor David Shribman. He emphasized that the newspaper's proposal includes a bar on taking images of anyone who asks not to be photographed or videotaped.
The Post-Gazette will drop the Common Pleas case, said Mr. Frank, in favor of the federal challenge.
"We believe that the statute itself has to be dealt with, and we decided that there has to be a determination, once and for all, as to the constitutionality of how this applies to the media," he said.
He added that in some counties, reporters are allowed to photograph within polling places, so the statute is "being enforced in a discriminatory way."
The Post-Gazette sued secretary of the commonwealth Carol Aichele and Allegheny County elections division manager Mark Wolosik.
The newspaper asked the federal court for an injunction allowing its employees access to the polls.
Ron Ruman, a spokesman for the Department of State headed by Ms. Aichele, declined comment on the lawsuit. "In general terms, [polling place access] is something that is under the purview of the county elections board, not the Department of State," he said.
County solicitor Andy Szefi said the county has done nothing more than enforce state law, and did not take any position on the Post-Gazette's effort to amend Judge James' order. If the newspaper gets a new order, or overturns the law, "we will abide by that," he said.
First Published July 12, 2012 12:00 am