Local news outlets fight Penn State’s request to seal documents

The Center County Courthouse on October 23, 2019.

The Center County Courthouse on October 23, 2019.

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Three local media companies on Thursday formally asked a Center County judge to overturn her ruling that she approved the wholesale sealing of documents at Penn State’s request, a decision that an advocate for government transparency called it “unusual”.

Many details of the documents filed by the university in June are unclear, apart from attorney John Snyder describing it as an “emergency”. The decision that sealed the case was captioned, in part, “Search Warrants Involving Crime Victims Who Are Pennsylvania State University Students.”

Center County Chairwoman Judge Pamela Ruest approved the blanket sealing of cases without hearing from the two elected officials listed as defendants. One is the chief county prosecutor, while the other is the custodian of all criminal and civil records.

“They say, ‘It’s such an emergency that we don’t have time to let the other side weigh in here. That in itself is extraordinary,” Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association attorney Melissa Melewsky said Tuesday. “Courts generally do not operate ex parte. The court is supposed to hear from both sides before making a decision, barring really, really unusual circumstances. That’s what Penn State said in this case.

Journalists’ Committee on Freedom of the Press lawyer Paula Knudsen Burke – who represents the Center Daily Times, TV station WJAC and digital media firm Spotlight PA – claimed Ruest’s decision was “extraordinarily broad “.

Existing and future filings should be hidden from the public under the ruling. And the county’s top judge didn’t elaborate on her findings or explain why less restrictive alternatives, like redaction, would be inadequate.

The documents, Burke wrote, come with a “presumed right of access.”

“This presumption — which still carries weight — has particular strength here because the University is an important educational institution with immense economic and cultural impact on central Pennsylvania,” she wrote. “…It is therefore undeniable that the public has a substantial and legitimate interest in any litigation involving the University, particularly with regard to the students and the crimes against them.”

Center County District Attorney Bernie Cantorna and Prothonotary and Clerk of Courts Jeremy Breon are listed as defendants.

Melewsky – who said completely sealed cases are “extremely unusual and rare” – theorized that the university asked Ruest to require or prohibit his offices from taking action.

“I’m just guessing,” Melewsky said. “It’s pure speculation, which is one of the reasons we don’t have completely sealed records, because it means we have no idea what the court is doing, what we’re doing. asked him to do, if he does it appropriately and the list goes on and on.

The filing was the CDT’s second step in attempting to unseal the documents. An informal letter from June asked Ruest to reconsider his decision; she did not respond on Thursday.

A hearing is scheduled for July 26.

Bret Pallotto primarily reports on courts and crime for the Center Daily Times. He grew up in Mifflin County and graduated from Lock Haven University.

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