[Pittsburgh, PA] — A local journalist and newsmagazine have filed a federal lawsuit challenging a set of Pennsylvania court rules that prohibit people from audio-recording bail hearings in Pittsburgh Municipal Court.  The suit alleges that the rules violate the First Amendment and undermine public discourse about the city’s bail system—a hotly debated issue in recent years—by shielding bail hearings from public scrutiny.

The plaintiffs in the suit, Matt Stroud and Postindustrial, provide in-depth coverage of issues affecting people in and around Pittsburgh.  They want to use audio-recordings of local bail hearings—which are not otherwise transcribed or recorded—to help people to understand, as objectively as possible, how the proceedings typically work.

“Understanding more about the amounts set in bail proceedings—and the reasons those amounts are set in individual cases—is one of the most important criminal justice issues in the United States today,” said Mr. Stroud. “It’s therefore imperative that journalists are allowed to sit in, take notes, and record these public proceedings.”

Bail hearings determine whether or not an arrestee must remain in jail while awaiting trial.  Those denied bail (or unable to afford it) can be imprisoned for weeks or months without first being found guilty.  Currently, bail hearings in Allegheny County occur off the record: there is no court reporter present and the court itself makes no recording or transcript of the proceedings.  While members of the public can attend the proceedings, court rules prohibit them from recording any of the proceedings themselves.

“What happens inside the courtroom is supposed to be a matter of public record,” said Nic Riley, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys.  “People have a right to document how their elected prosecutors and judges are behaving in court—especially when the court itself is not keeping any record of what is said during a particular proceeding.”

The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania.  The plaintiffs are represented by the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown Law, which has brought a range of legal challenges to restrictions on court transparency, and by the law firm Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr LLP.  A copy of the complaint is available here.  Another, similar federal lawsuit was filed in July, challenging the ban on recording bail proceedings in Philadelphia.


About the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection (ICAP)

ICAP uses the power of the courts to defend American constitutional rights and values.  Based at Georgetown Law Center, ICAP draws on expert litigators, savvy litigation strategy, and the constitutional scholarship of Georgetown to vindicate individuals’ rights and to protect America’s constitutional way of life.  More information about ICAP can be found at law.georgetown.edu/icap.