ONA joins Reporters Committee brief urging U.S. Supreme Court to strike residency restriction in Virginia FOIA

By on January 8, 2013

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has filed with the U.S. Supreme Court a friend-of-the court brief, joined by the Online News Association, arguing that a Virginia law restricting Freedom of Information Act requests to state residents is unconstitutional. Although the law includes a narrow exemption for media organizations that circulate or broadcast in the state — with no mention of digital media — ONA joined with 52 other media organizations to argue for overturning the law.

The challenge to Virginia’s FOIA law comes in the form of McBurney v. Young. The RCFP brief asks the justices to reverse a Fourth Circuit decision upholding the law’s limits on access to public records. In the brief, RCFP argued that the law harms “the media’s ability to report on regionally and nationally significant stories and provide the public with complete and comprehensive information about the country as a whole.”

“In an age when digital communications transcend state boundaries, news media and the public have a common interest in information that provides regional and national comparisons on issues such as health care and public education,” said Reporters Committee Executive Director Bruce D. Brown. “The very limited exception for print and broadcast publications serving the state is wholly inadequate and leaves out all forms of digital media. The bottom line is that laws that stymie any access to public information cannot stand.”

Citizenship references similar to Virginia’s exist in public records statutes in Alabama, Arkansas, New Hampshire, New Jersey and Tennessee. “If this Court fails to void VFOIA’s citizenship provision, it would be in effect allowing states to continue practices of preventing all out-of-state media from obtaining public records, effectively shutting out companies and persons who cannot be considered citizens of those states,” RCFP argued in the brief. “Affirmance could also embolden other states to adopt similarly restrictive legislation, further inhibiting the national press corps’ ability to report on matters of public importance at the local and regional level.”

Find more information and updates on the work of ONA’s Legal Affairs Committee here.


Jennifer Mizgata

Jennifer Mizgata is Director of Programs at the Online News Association, where she leads the Women's Leadership Accelerator. At ONA, Jennifer focuses on identifying talented digital journalists and innovative journalism projects and providing them with support. Jennifer is a business and design strategist with over a decade of experience creating industry-changing training programs, investing in award-winning projects, and managing key relationships with journalism partners and tech stakeholders. She regularly coaches managers, senior leaders and entrepreneurs on challenges related to their careers and launching new ventures. Jennifer shares advice for navigating tough work challenges in Work Space, a monthly column for Fortune.