Officials dissent on whether offices can prohibit, charge to photograph public record documents
When Laura Bistok snapped cellphone photos of public documents in the Westmoreland County Recorder of Deeds office, she set in motion a series of events that would end with her being jailed on a disorderly conduct charge.
Bistok, 37, of Indiana County violated a longstanding but unposted policy against photographing documents in the public records office that handles deeds and mortgages, authorities said. When she refused to put away her phone, office clerks called security.
Policies that bar photographing public documents and those that permit photos — for a per-page fee — are drawing challenges across the country as high-quality cellphone cameras and handheld scanners grow in popularity.
Some government officials entrusted to maintain documents owned by the public insist they have a right to bar citizens’ digital devices and demand fees for copies to underwrite office costs.
“They’re public documents, and they’re basically the property of this office in Allegheny County,” said Jim Uziel, deputy recorder at the Allegheny County Real Estate Department. “They’re kind of like our product.”
Not everyone agrees.
In Alabama, where a reporter was prohibited from taking cellphone images of a prison contract and forced to pay for paper copies made by office personnel, state Sen. Arthur Orr said he would draft legislation to require agencies to permit cellphone photos of public documents.
Charles Davis, dean of the Henry W. Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia and former executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, said such issues cropped up nationwide in recent years.
“What I have a hard time squaring is how they can just completely deny people from taking photos of these documents. … It’s not supposed to be a money-maker for these offices. It’s just supposed to cover costs,” Davis said.
In Bistok’s case, she ran up against a ban on photos designed to protect sometimes fragile documents, office Chief Deputy Christopher Kline said.
Authorities said when Bistok became unruly, she was charged with disorderly conduct, jailed briefly and then released on bond to await a hearing scheduled for Thursday. Neither Bistok nor her lawyer, Gina Ryen, returned calls for comment.
Policies vary by county, office
Although an exemption under Pennsylvania’s Right to Know Law permits limiting access to fragile historical records, former Office of Open Records Director Terry Mutchler said agencies that came before her office accepted that cellphone photos and handheld scanners are technological advances that benefit citizens and records custodians.
“As long as it’s not disruptive to an agency, I believe it’s a good, pro-open government approach. This is about citizens, who own (the) records,” said Mutchler, a lawyer with Pepper Hamilton in Philadelphia. “Agencies might have had questions about it, but most agencies permitted it and it’s been a good thing.”
Policies governing photography and scanning emerged in patchwork fashion. An informal survey in Western Pennsylvania found they vary from county to county and sometimes office to office.
Though offices in Fayette and Somerset counties allow photos, those in Westmoreland, Indiana and Armstrong counties prohibit them. Policies vary by office in Allegheny and Washington counties.
Fayette Recorder of Deeds David Malosky said he consulted with the office’s solicitor and decided not to prohibit photographs.
The 2009 open records law makes no mention of cellphones or handheld scanners, but media law experts said government offices that ban people from photographing public records risk violating that law.
“You could hand-write the information (from the document) or snap an iPhone photo and that’s OK,” said Paula Knudsen, director of legal affairs for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association.
Westmoreland Register of Wills Michael Ginsburg said his office recently discussed how to handle photography of documents and conceded “there’s no way around (allowing) it.” Ginsburg plans to post signs notifying people that snapshots will be subject to the 50-cent-per-page fee assessed on paper copies and require visitors to inform staff that they plan to photograph documents.
Some say that’s akin to barring public access.
Knudsen said the public is entitled to inspect or copy public records under the law, and that inspection can include photographing documents.
It is inappropriate for a court to charge someone for photographing a document, she said: “If no government resources are expended, you shouldn’t be paying for them.”
But officials in the Allegheny County Department of Real Estate and the Washington County Recorder of Deeds prohibit photographs, contending the fees they charge for paper copies are necessary to fund office operations.
“If everybody can come in here and take pictures, then we can’t charge the fees that we have to have to pay for that equipment,” said Jim Fazzoni, assistant deputy recorder in Washington County.
Debra Erdley and Jacob Tierney are staff writers for Trib Total Media. Staff writers Kari Andren and Renatta Signorini contributed to this report.