Virginia Courts’ Denial of Online Access to Public Documents Is Neither Good Policy Nor Content-Neutral
“The First Amendment guarantees the public a qualified right of access to judicial proceedings and documents that is rooted in the understanding that public oversight of the judicial system is essential to the proper functioning of that system and, more generally, to our democratic system of self-governance.”
A hearing last week before the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals includes this quote from an amici brief by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and 38 other media organizations including the Associated Press, Atlantic Monthly Group, Axios, McClatchy, the National Press Club, the New York Times and The Washington Post. At issue is Virginia’s Officer of the Court Remote Access (with the charming acronym of OCRA) system, which allows attorneys and certain government agencies online access to non-confidential civil court records from participating circuit courts in the state (105 courts out of 120 in the Commonwealth).
Those not allowed online access to court records through OCRA include, well, everyone else – but most notably members of the press, who are forced to travel to each circuit court individually, in person, during weekday business hours in order to obtain documents and properly report on proceedings of public concern.
Virginia’s practice stands in contrast with the policies of at least 38 other states that allow unfettered online access to court records for all members of the public.
Accordingly, one media outlet, Courthouse News Service, filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia against a Virginia court clerk and the administrator of OCRA, alleging that the “Non-Attorney Access Restriction” constitutes an unconstitutional speaker-based restriction on speech.
Although the district court initially rejected the defendants’ motion to dismiss, it ultimately granted summary judgment, finding that the attorneys-only rule was a content-neutral time, place, and manner restriction and thus did not require a strict scrutiny analysis. Courthouse News subsequently appealed to the Fourth Circuit.
The defendants argue that limiting online access to lawyers and certain government agencies allows the courts to better prevent against fraud and misuse of “private, sensitive information let out into the world and limiting the potential for widespread data harvesting which is often done by bots.”
On its surface, this seems a noble argument, but it fails to consider that: 1) the information online is already non-confidential in nature, with any sensitive information required to be redacted by filers of the documents; 2) any member of the public can already access these documents in person; and 3) openness has worked well for the 38 other states that have functional, non-compromised online systems in place that allow widespread public access.
Protect The 1st is particularly sensitive to the protection of online data – but, as the amici point out, Virginia’s argument is speculative at best, showing no evidence of data harvesting by bots or anyone else. Restricting access to OCRA based on assumptions about how certain non-favored speakers may use that information is plainly not content-neutral. Instead, as amici contend, it “amounts to unconstitutional speaker-based discrimination that demands strict scrutiny.”
Further, as other courts show, less restrictive means of protecting information in court documents obviously exist – certainly less restrictive than denying access to public documents.
Most importantly, fundamental press freedoms are at stake here. “…[I]n denying the press and the greater public access to OCRA,” amici write, “the Non-Attorney Access Restriction infringes the public’s presumptive constitutional right of contemporaneous access to civil court records.”
Journalists depend on remote, online access to report on cases of public concern in a timely manner. “If not reversed,” the brief declares, “the District Court’s order will hamper the ability of the news media to report on court proceedings of public interest in Virginia and around the country.”
Courthouse News Service, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and their fellow amici are right in urging the Fourth Circuit to overturn the lower court’s grant of summary judgment in this case. We’ll be following future developments closely.