Federal Court Overturns Ohio Ban on Reporters in Polling Places

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By: Joe Strupp

A federal appeals court on Tuesday overturned a directive from the Ohio secretary of state that had barred reporters and photographers from polling places, finding the restriction unconstitutional.

The ruling “says that the court cannot support the proposed restricton of the First Amendment guarantee,” attorney Karen Lefton, who represented the Akron Beacon Journal in the appeal. “I think it was important to establish media access to voting places.”

The 2-1 decision from the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals came down at about 3 p.m., Lefton said, adding that the appeal had been filed early Tuesday morning.

Prior to the reversal, some newspaper editors had urged staffers to ignore the order and seek access to voting sites until they were ordered out.

“We are going to proceed on the assumption we will get in and will until we get thrown out,” Doug Clifton, editor of The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, said this morning, estimating that up to 50 of his newsroom staffers would be visiting polling places Tuesday in the hotly contested state. “They were getting in this morning [Tuesday], but not everywhere.”

In addition, at least one paper — The Columbus Dispatch — had registered newsroom employees as election challengers so they could gain access to polling places.

“We filed to be challengers because election officials said they would strictly enforce laws regulating who can be in polling places — voters, poll workers and challengers only,” Dispatch Editor Ben Marrison wrote in a column. “Dispatch staffers are registered as challengers for every precinct in Franklin and Delaware counties.”

Marrison could not be reached for comment Tuesday morning.

The Dispatch opted for the challenger approach after Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell issued his directive to local election officials on Oct. 20, reminding them that state law prohibits anyone from entering polling places unless they are voting, monitoring the area as a challenger, or working as a voting official or witness.

The Akron Beacon Journal filed suit against Blackwell’s directive, a challenge denied by U.S. District Judge Paul Matia on Monday. But the Beacon Journal’s appeal, filed at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday, proved successful just hours later.

Two other directives by Blackwell to bar exit pollers and registered challengers from polling places were blocked in separate court rulings within the last two days. Those court orders allowed challengers to be in the polling places and exit pollers to be within the 100-foot perimeter set by Blackwell but not inside the polling places themselves.

Carlo LoParo, Blackwell’s press secretary, said the Dispatch registered staffers as challengers on behalf of a committee opposing a ballot initiative for a state constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. Despite the fact that the newspaper openly admitted the challengers would be there to act as journalists, he said the effort was considered legal. “If the committee is comfortable having individuals from the Dispatch representing them, that is within the law,” LoParo said.

Some editors had instructed reporters and photographers prior to the appeals court ruling to ignore the secretary of state’s directive and get into the polling places if possible.

Mike Burbach, managing editor of the Beacon Journal, offered a plan similar to the Plain Dealer’s. “We are going to try to get in, and, if they let us, we will,” he said. “[Our reporters] have gotten into a couple of places so far, and we will do what we always have, show up and record the news.”

But both Burbach and Doug Clifton emphasized that no reporters or photographers would disobey officials who ordered them to leave. “We will not defy the law,” Burbach stressed. “But we will do what we have to within the law.”

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