Access to Open Records and Electronic Media

Imagine that you are a journalist producing online content for ESPN at ESPN’s headquarters in Bristol, Connecticut. Your editor assigns you to cover the return of the Auburn Tigers to the top echelons of college football and how the Alabama Crimson Tide, one of the perennial powers of the sport, returned to the College Football Playoff under controversial circumstances. Since Alabama and Auburn are both public universities, you want to access some of their records via an open records request in order to obtain background information on the two programs. However, the state denies your request but grants the requests of an in-state media outlet, despite the fact that the requests are identical to one another. That’s because the Code of Alabama provides that “[e]very citizen has a right to inspect and take a copy of any public writing of this state, except as otherwise expressly provided by statute.” This means that entities based in other jurisdictions like ESPN, CNN, or The New York Times cannot access Alabama public records unless one of their journalists is an Alabama citizen. In contrast, in-state media outlets like Al.com can assess the information and post stories about how much Alabama teachers are paid on average by school district and ratings for inspected restaurants in Mobile over a certain period of time. This difference becomes ironic when one considers that Alabama caselaw is favorable towards media outlets accessing public records for whatever purpose they desire. Stone v. Consolidated Pub. Co. defines a public writing as “such a record as is reasonably necessary to record the business and activities required to be done or...