The state government committee has approved legislation that would update the state’s Right-to-Know Law by allowing government offices to charge commercial entities for records and provide a mechanism to temporarily bar “vexatious requesters” who flood records offices with document requests.
State Sen. Cris Dush, R-Indiana County, of the Senate State Government Committee, authored SB 552, which would create a means for government agencies to ask the Office of Open Records to determine that people who make too many records requests are “vexatious” and can be barred from getting public records for up to a year. The bill now heads to the full Senate for its consideration.
Dush said that legislation is intended to protect government offices from being flooded with records requests from prison inmates and others who “completely hound our municipal governments.”
The Pennsylvania Newsmedia Association is concerned about the effort to curtail records requests from people deemed “vexatious,” said Holly Lubart, director of government affairs for the PNA. The news trade group would like the bill changed to specifically indicate that members of the news media can’t be deemed “vexatious,” she said.
“Media should be exempt in acknowledgment of this fact and because of its constitutionally protected role in proper government function: keeping the public informed about government operations via public records. That role should not be limited by a vexatious requester process,” Lubart said. “As we have learned over the last year, definitions are important, such as the definition of 'emergency.' While most entities would not use this as an opportunity to block traditional media access, laws must be crafted carefully to hold the agencies that would use this provision to thwart access accountable.”
Lubart said Senate Bill 312, which would allow government agencies to charge for commercial requests, includes an exemption for media so that journalists aren’t included among the commercial users required to pay for records. Lubart said the PNA has no objection to SB 312 as long as the media exemption remains in the bill.
A 2018 study by the Legislative Budget and Finance Committee, based on surveys of government offices, found that about 35 percent of records requests were for commercial purposes and “nearly half” of those requests came from outside the state.
State Sen. Michele Brooks, R-Crawford County, is the prime sponsor of Senate Bill 312. She said the legislation is meant to correct the “unintended consequences” that have left government office staff “overwhelmed” by the demands of filling records requests.
At the same time, the bill is not intended to weaken the transparency aim at the heart of the state’s open records law, Brooks said.
When Pennsylvania’s current open records law was passed in 2008, lawmakers said it was meant to help the public understand what the government is doing and to hold the government accountable for its actions, she said.
“This legislation helps local residents maintain the true intent of the Right-to-Know Law to see what their local governments, their local school boards are doing,” Brooks said.