Right to Photograph Public Records Affirmed.

Right to Photograph Public Records Affirmed

Some court clerks in Washington have adopted the practice of barring reporters from taking photographs of public court records with cell phones. Now that restriction is going away.

The Washington Coalition for Open Government and the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association in May confirmed that journalists can take pictures of public court documents when inspecting them in person.

The restrictions came to light when Loyal Baker, publisher of the Dayton Chronicle in Southeast Washington, inspected public records at the Columbia County Courthouse. He then used his iPhone to photograph a police report.

On May 1, Columbia County Clerk Sue Marinella sent an email to Baker and the managing editor of The Waitsburg Times. “We do not allow anyone to take pictures of the documents,” Marinella’s email said.

It was not an isolated incident. An informal Twitter survey by a WCOG director uncovered some cases of similar restrictions in other counties.

WCOG and WNPA submitted their concerns over the photography bans to the Fire Brigade, a panel under the state Bench-Bar-Press Committee that resolves free-press fair-trial disputes.

In a joint letter to the Fire Brigade, the two groups asked for confirmation that taking photographs of public court records is permitted and promotes understanding of the justice system. The groups also said photographs are an information-gathering tool for journalists.

The Fire Brigade’s liaison, King County Superior Court Judge Judith Ramseyer, responded a few days later. In a May 22 letter, Ramseyer said she contacted the Washington State Association of County Clerks, which agreed that “County Clerks should not prohibit reporters from photographing court records.”

Ramseyer’s letter continued: “Consequently, newspaper reporters will not encounter this prohibition going forward.”

WCOG was pleased with the outcome. But we continue to argue that all citizens – not just journalists – can photograph public court records.

— George Erb