Media coalition: Federal government improperly restricting public access to court records through excessive fees

Press Release | September 6, 2017
Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and a coalition of 17 other media organizations file amicus brief in support of limiting fees for accessing electronic court records

On Tuesday, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and a coalition of 17 media organizations submitted a friend-of-the-court brief to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in the case of National Veterans Legal Services Program v. United States of America. The brief argues that the law requires the judicial system to limit the fees it charges people to access its Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) system to the cost of disseminating the information requested. Currently, many members of the media face prohibitive costs when trying to obtain court records to inform the public about what is happening in the judicial system.
 
“The government should not be able to set the price of court records so high that the press – and therefore the public – are priced out of accessing information about how courts are acting on behalf of their communities,” said Bruce Brown, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. “Court records are vital to producing complete and accurate reporting for the public on important issues. When the government charges hefty fees for court records and then uses funds from those fees to pay for expenses unrelated to a records request, it comes at a high expense to the public.”
 
The class action lawsuit, brought by three nonprofit organizations, alleges that the judicial system’s current PACER fees violate the E-Government Act of 2002, which allows for charging “reasonable fees” for access to electronic court records “only to the extent necessary” to “reimburse expenses in providing these services.” In the past, Congress has found that the judicial system charges PACER fees higher than the cost of dissemination and has used funds generated from these fees to pay for expenses unrelated to processing court records requests.
 
The coalition brief argues that court records are valuable sources of information for journalists who report on issues of public concern, such as public safety, government misconduct, and public controversy, and that maintaining unfettered and affordable access to these primary sources of information contributes to better reporting that is more trusted by the public.
 
According to the brief, “[A]ccess to court records makes reporting more accurate, fair, and transparent. Reporters with access to primary source materials are more likely to get the story right when reporting on legal news. And publication of court records alongside such stories enhances readers’ trust by allowing readers to read the documents themselves and hold reporters accountable for the facts underlying a story. These benefits of access to court records can accrue, however, only if news organizations can afford to access them.”
 
The brief also emphasizes the importance of the public being able to obtain court documents in order to exercise its First Amendment right to access court proceedings and hold the judicial system accountable.
 
“When the press and the public have information about what’s happening in our courts, it increases the likelihood and public confidence that the courts are operating fairly and with integrity,” Brown said. “But when the price for this information is too high, it restricts the public’s First Amendment right to access court proceedings.”
 
The full coalition brief is available here.