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Reporters Committee urges Third Circuit to recognize all citizens' rights to public records

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The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press urged the U.S. Court of Appeals in Philadelphia (3rd Cir.) to recognize…

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press urged the U.S. Court of Appeals in Philadelphia (3rd Cir.) to recognize the importance of a journalist’s access to public information regardless of where the journalist lives. In a friend-of-the-court brief filed Monday, the Reporters Committee argued that the appeals court should affirm the U.S. District Court’s May decision that a Delaware law prohibiting out-of-state residents from accessing its public records is unconstitutional.

With half a million businesses incorporated in Delaware, the Reporters Committee argued that access to the state’s government records is crucial so reporters can keep the public informed on matters occurring there. “Limiting access to public records, as Delaware aims to do, frustrates both journalists’ ability to fulfill their duty to the public and the public’s interest in learning what government is doing,” the Reporters Committee stated in its brief.

Delaware’s Freedom of Information Act currently contains a “citizens only” provision that prevents people living outside the state from accessing its records. The case, Lee v. Governor of the State of Delaware, involves New York resident Matthew Lee, a freelance writer who also operates a nonprofit organization that publishes reports on business and financial matters and regulatory proceedings in Delaware. Lee successfully sued the Delaware attorney general in the U.S. District Court for Delaware, arguing that the provision is a violation of the Privileges and Immunities Clause of the U.S. Constitution, because it prevents him from pursuing the common calling of journalism within the state.

The Reporters Committee argued that a “reporter who cannot fully report on matters within Delaware cannot fully report on business in the U.S.” and stated that a “reporter’s role is to gather information and transmit it to the public. His residence has no correlation to his ability to protect the public interest and perform his job to gather and disseminate the news.”

The friend-of-the-court brief also pointed out that one effect of this law is that “Delaware citizen-journalists, who have full access to the state’s public records, are given the distinct privilege of premiere coverage of business and economic issues concerning the state, while the remainder of the nation’s reporting . . . suffers lack of depth and substance.”

Lee is asking the Third Circuit to affirm the district court’s ruling that to prohibit him access to Delaware’s public records as an out-of-state resident is a burden on his privilege to engage in a common calling under the Privileges and Immunities Clause.