6th Circuit grants press access to Ohio polls

Wednesday, November 3, 2004

COLUMBUS, Ohio — A federal appeals court in Cincinnati ruled yesterday that reporters and photographers should have access to polling places as long as they don't interfere with voters or poll workers.

In a case filed by the Akron Beacon Journal, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals described the press’s role as “far from interfering with the right to vote” but instead “to report the news of the day to their fellow Ohio citizens,” the newspaper reported today.

The 6th Circuit’s ruling in Beacon Journal Publishing Co. v. Blackwell overturned U.S. District Judge Paul Matia's decision on Nov. 1, the day before the election, that effectively barred the Beacon Journal and the rest of the news media from observing the voting.

Matia’s ruling had denied the newspaper’s request for a temporary restraining order that would have prevented the Summit County Board of Elections from enforcing Ohio Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell’s order that the press be kept away from polling places.

Blackwell's order, Matia ruled, would keep “the election process free of the turmoil that could be created by hordes of reporters and photographers,” according to the Beacon Journal.

But the 6th Circuit, ruling four and a half hours before the polls closed, dismissed Matia’s concerns as “purely hypothetical.” Worries about a large crush of news media could not excuse a state action that would restrict press freedom, the appeals court said.

Its ruling ordered “reasonable access to any polling place for the purpose of news gathering and reporting,'' as long as the media “do not interfere with poll workers and voters.”

“(D)emocracies die behind closed doors,” the appeals court wrote in its ruling.

In a similar case, a federal judge ruled on Nov. 1 that exit polling could be conducted within 100 feet of a polling place on Election Day. U.S. District Judge Michael H. Watson's ruling overturned an October directive by Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell to prohibit exit polling within 100 feet of precincts.

Five television networks — ABC, CNN, CBS, Fox News and NBC — and The Associated Press had sued, seeking a temporary order to block Blackwell's directive that limited the exit-poll surveys, even though there had been no prior problems.

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