Judge hears arguments on cameras in Pennsylvania polling places
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A federal judge is hearing arguments today on the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's lawsuit seeking to alter a state law that prevents it from reporting within polling places.
The newspaper sued state and Allegheny County officials in July, saying that their decisions have unconstitutionally barred news gathering on the voting process, and arguing that it is particularly important to report on the application of the new voter identification law. The newspaper wants to interview, photograph and video record voters as they sign in to vote, but not if they object and not while they cast their votes.
"It would seem to me as an individual voter going in and out, you may not want to be photographed," said U.S. District Judge Nora Barry Fischer, at a hearing on motions filed by the state and county to dismiss the lawsuit. "You may feel that what you are about to do is confidential and you have a privacy right."
In nearly three and a half hours of morning arguments, attorneys for the state, county and newspaper outlined their cases. Arguments will resume at 2 p.m.
The gist of the debate was encapsulated in two paraphrases of past court decisions.
"Democracy does die behind closed doors," said Attorney Frederick N. Frank, representing the Post-Gazette.
"I would submit to the court that democracies begin behind closed doors," said attorney George Janocsko, representing Allegheny County.
Attorney Mary Lynch Friedline, representing secretary of the commonwealth Carol Aichele, said voting "is certainly a public event. But it is a public event that is very private."
Ms. Friedline said that the new requirement to show identification cuts against allowing photographs and videos of the process, because they might capture personal information that could be used in identity theft.
Mr. Frank said any restraint of the media has to be very narrowly tailored. The judge could, he said, allow photography but require that images of peoples' IDs not be published.
"Who is the media?" asked Mr. Janocsko. If the Post-Gazette can report from polling places, he asked, that would also allow in "the self-professed blogger who writes a blog that virtually nobody reads." Eventually, the "gauntlet" of political partisans that must now stand outside of polling places would creep in.
"There's nothing before this court where anybody is asking that electioneering should be allowed in the polling place," said Mr. Frank. "The media have a special role in society, and therefore restraint on the media is something that is immediately constitutionally suspect."
State law bars anyone except for poll workers and those casting ballots from entering, or being closer than 10 feet from, polling places. The Post-Gazette's lawsuit said that as applied to the newspaper, the rule is unconstitutional, and also that it is being inconsistently enforced.
First Published September 7, 2012 3:03 pm