News outlets skeptical of tweak to Pa. open records law

    Pennsylvania’s right-to-know law is on the brink of a thorough update, the statute’s first revision since it was written in 2008. As lawmakers consider changes, news organizations are concerned that fine-tuning the law will mean restricting access for government watchdogs.

    One legislative tweak seems innocent enough. When someone asks for documents on a government contract, a bill passed by the state Senate would limit them to the actual contract and any records related to the contract.

    But the change popped a red flag at the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association.

    “It could allow agencies to farm out accountability along with their function, and that can’t be the result of this kind of legislation,” said Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for PNA.

    Erik Arneson, spokesman for the GOP Senate majority leader, insists the proposed changes do not go that far. He said the restriction is an attempt to define how far into contractor records a public requester can go – an issue that’s pretty murky right now.

    “It’s still not clear under the existing law, so we’re trying to put a better, more defined scope there that we think still hits the need for the public to be able to review what the government is doing with taxpayer money and how it’s being used,” Arneson said.

    The Senate last week unanimously approved updates to the right-to-know law, which has provided unprecedented access to government records since it was established in 2008. House lawmakers will consider the proposed changes next.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal