The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press today filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of a challenge to a Virginia statute that limits access to state and local public records to Virginia residents.
Joined by 21 news media companies and journalism organizations, the Reporters Committee brief argues the statute is unconstitutional because it discriminates between Virginia citizens and everybody else, creating a substantial burden on the rights of journalists.
“Although the statute allows news organizations that have significant numbers of viewers or readers in Virginia to make public records requests, the law gives an overwhelming majority of media nationwide no legal right to get public records of great interest to the entire country,” said Reporters Committee Executive Director Lucy A. Dalglish. “In today’s Internet-centric world, limiting access based on geography is antiquated and pointless.”
Although the case of McBurney v. Young involves two non-journalists who live outside Virginia and are seeking information from government agencies there, the implications for news gathering make this case of great interest to reporters, who frequently cover major stories in the Commonwealth.
The brief was filed with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Richmond after the U.S. District Court in Richmond rejected the plaintiffs’ constitutional challenge to the restriction.
As the brief notes, the restriction “effectively shuts out most members of the national media from gaining access to commonwealth records…. Further, as the profession of journalism is a common calling — with the right of access to government records established centuries ago in common law — such discriminatory laws constitute a direct, substantial burden on the rights of journalists, violating their equal rights.”
Events in Virginia “are often of national import,” and “journalists and the public outside the commonwealth and its immediate area have a strong interest in its public records,” the brief pointed out. Among the news stories cited by the brief were the mass shootings at Virginia Tech; the political aspirations of Virginia’s former governor and current Democratic National Committee chairman Tim Kaine; and the ongoing coverage of the major corporations and defense contractors based there.
In addition, records gleaned from across the country are important to news stories examining national trends or comparing one state to another. The “citizens only” rule also “bears no substantial relationship to the state’s open government objectives,” the brief added.
The brief is available on the Reporters Committee website.
Lucy A. Dalglish