When a recent Franklin & Marshall College poll found that a majority of Pennsylvania voters support “few restrictions” on access to government records, my peers were quick to celebrate.
Access to government records like documents, datasets, even calendars and emails, often lead reporters to stories.
I admit, I cheered, too. I know how important this access can be.
Before I started at Spotlight PA, I was looking into a shady company. I’d heard some alarming anecdotes and wanted to dig deeper, so I fired off a few records requests. It took one week for reports to arrive in my inbox with information that was a boon to my reporting.
Then I moved to Pennsylvania.
The first records request I filed here, for consumer complaints, was promptly dismissed. They largely aren’t obtainable in the state.
Even when the law is on my side, barriers to access pop up frequently. Access to government records here is so dire, in fact, that the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press recently announced it’s sending a dedicated lawyer to fight for access on behalf of Pennsylvania journalists.
So, yes, last week’s poll result was welcome news. Of 628 registered voters, 79% agreed that “citizens should have the right to obtain any government record with few restrictions.”
But as a journalist, I parse details, and when I read the other phrase that respondents were handed, I didn’t know what to make of the results. Of those polled, 19% selected the second option: “Citizens should have the right to obtain government records only in limited circumstances.”
What do “few restrictions” and “limited circumstances” actually mean? Should the public be able to obtain “any” government record? What about privacy concerns and security risks?
Turns out, I’m not the only one asking.
“The question is, what are the limits?” said Erik Arneson, executive director of Pennsylvania’s Office of Open Records. “The question is, what’s reasonable?”
These questions don’t have clear answers, but they won’t stop me from sending more records requests.