The Fourth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals on Feb. 1 ruled that out-of-state news organizations do not have the right to request public records from Virginia agencies. The ruling upheld the constitutionality of Virginia’s existing Freedom of Information Act (VFOIA). In the suit, two out-of-state records requesters challenged the statute after state and local agencies, declined their requests. The two out-of-state appellees unsuccessfully argued that the citizens-only provision barring access to non-residents violates their fundamental rights under the dormant commerce clause and the privileges and immunities clause.

Filing a brief amici curiae, a group comprised of more than 20 reputable media and open government groups argued that the law unconstitutionally restrains the majority of journalists’ right to public records, thereby hindering their role as a government watchdog.

VFOIA allows out-of-state news organizations to submit requests only if they have circulation or broadcasts in or into Virginia, which the amici argued hinders non-citizen journalists from reporting on national concerns involving operations of government. Included in the brief are examples of these national concerns such as the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings, investigations of politicians, and economic news.  In all these examples, the current Virginia law prohibits a majority of journalists from access to these records.

The Court did not discuss the important First Amendment issue of freedom of the press, which the amici addressed. The denial of the ability to request public records affects not only media outlets from other states, but also Internet journalists and bloggers.  Particularly with the heightened use of the Internet, society prizes its ability to find and share information — especially public information — freely. By not addressing this issue, the Court skirts around discussing the increasingly important and contested relationship between the Internet, media, and freedom of information.