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Supreme Court turns away newspaper's beef about Pennsylvania election law

US Supreme Court refused Monday to take a case involving news media access to polling places on Election Day. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette had challenged the law, unsuccessfully, in lower courts.

By Staff writer / June 3, 2013

The exterior of the US Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C., is seen in this file photo.

R. Norman Matheny/The Christian Science Monitor/File

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The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has lost its bid to renew a challenge to a Pennsylvania law that allows local election officials to prohibit news reporters and photographers from coming within 10 feet of a polling place during an election.

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Lawyers for PG Publishing Co. had asked the US Supreme Court to examine rulings by a federal judge and a federal appeals court panel upholding the state law and the exclusionary policy of election officials.

The high court declined the case without comment on Monday.

Pennsylvania law requires that everyone other than election officials, police officers, and voters remain at least 10 feet from any polling place during an election. In some counties in Pennsylvania, officials allowed members of the media access to polling places to help them cover an ongoing election. But in Allegheny County, officials insisted that the news media must remain outside polling places.

Lawyers representing the Post-Gazette argued that the election last November involved the first time a new voter ID law would be implemented in the state. Critics of the new law said it would disenfranchise some voters who lacked government-issued photo identification and might discourage some citizens from participating in the election.

News reporters wanted to monitor not only the lines outside a polling place, but also the activity inside, where election workers would be asking for ID.

The newspaper’s lawyers argued that the policy of exclusion from polling places violated the media’s First Amendment right to gain access to a public news event. They also argued that Allegheny County elections officials were violating the paper's right to equal treatment since news reporters in other counties were being given access to polling places despite the state law.

A federal judge rejected both arguments. That decision was upheld by the Third US Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Third Circuit said that while there is a right to access for newsgathering, that right is no greater than access enjoyed by the general public. In other words, the court said there is no right for the media to have special access to information that is not available to the public generally.

The court determined that the state law was a permissible regulation of elections and that because Allegheny County imposed the same restrictions on reporters at all polling places under its jurisdiction, the exclusion in Allegheny County but not other counties did not violate the constitutional principle of equal treatment and protection.

The case was P.G. Publishing v. Aichele, (12-1197).

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