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PLN Wins One of the First Cases to Interpret Pennsylvania's Right to Know Law

Prison Legal News, Jan. 1, 2010.
Press Release - PLN Wins One of the First Cases to Interpret Pennsylvania's Right to Know Law 2010


Prison Legal News – For Immediate Release

April 9, 2010

Publisher Wins One of the First Cases to Interpret Pennsylvania's Right to Know Law

Philadelphia, PA – On April 8, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania issued a ruling in an appeal brought under the state’s Right to Know Law (RTKL) by Prison Legal News, a non-profit monthly publication that reports on criminal justice-related issues.

Prison Legal News (PLN) filed the appeal on May 13, 2009, after the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) refused to waive $8,750 in copy fees for PLN's RTKL request for records related to successful litigation against prison officials – including documents related to public funds the DOC had paid out as a result of lawsuits and claims by prisoners and employees. The DOC also refused to provide the requested records in electronic format, stating they did not exist in that format, and failed to explain why PLN's request for a fee waiver had been denied.

PLN argued that a waiver was in the public interest, as the public had a right to know how its tax dollars were being spent and because PLN, as a member of the news media, would publish the results of the RTKL request in its publication or on its website. According to PLN editor Paul Wright, the $8,750 fee was unreasonable, cost-prohibitive and amounted to a de facto denial of PLN's RTKL request. The DOC's decision was largely upheld by the Office of Open Records (OOR). PLN appealed, and the DOC appealed other aspects of the OOR's ruling.

The Commonwealth Court held on April 8 that the DOC had set forth an "insufficient basis" to substantiate its demand for $8,750 in copy fees. The court also found the DOC had incorrectly denied PLN's request for a fee waiver without providing any reason, and must at least supply "some non-discriminatory reason for not waiving the fee." However, the court held that PLN was not entitled to demand an evidentiary hearing to challenge the DOC’s cost estimate.

The court therefore vacated the decision by the Office of Open Records, and remanded PLN's RTKL request with instructions that the DOC: 1) disclose its methodology for determining the copy fee, and 2) "provide explanations for why it denied PLN’s request" for a fee waiver.

"We are very pleased with the court’s ruling," said PLN editor Paul Wright. "The public in fact has a right to know under Pennsylvania’s Right to Know Law, and government officials cannot prohibit access to public records by requiring exorbitant fees and then refusing to reveal their reasons for denying a fee waiver. This ruling reinforces the notion of open government."

The case is Prison Legal News v. Office of Open Records, Commonwealth Court of Penn., Case No. 969 C.D. 2009. PLN was ably represented by Mary Catherine Roper, a staff attorney for the ACLU of Pennsylvania, and by Andy Foster, Alicia Hickok and Rick Coe with the Philadelphia law firm of Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP.

Prison Legal News (PLN), founded in 1990 and based in Brattleboro, Vermont, is a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting human rights in U.S. detention facilities. PLN publishes a monthly magazine that includes reports, reviews and analysis of court rulings and news related to prisoners' rights and criminal justice issues. PLN has almost 7,000 subscribers nationwide and operates a website ( that includes a comprehensive database of prison and jail-related articles, news reports, court rulings, verdicts, settlements and related documents. PLN is a project of the Human Rights Defense Center.

For further information, please contact:

Paul Wright, Editor
Prison Legal News
P.O. Box 2420
Brattleboro, VT 05303
(802) 579-1810

Sara Mullen
ACLU of Pennsylvania
P.O. Box 40008
Philadelphia, PA 19106
(215) 592-1513 x122
(215) 592-1343 (fax)



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