A federal judge has dismissed a novel case testing just how far a state's public records act extends into cyberspace, ruling that a local government's refusal to turn over its computer files does not violate a journalist's First Amendment rights.
But the judge did not settle the prickly issue over whether Internet files are covered by a state's public records laws, and left open the possibility that a similar case could be brought to a state court.
The ruling, issued by U.S. District Judge Thomas Higgins, puts the case back where it started 11 months ago. That's when Geoffrey Davidian, editor of the Putnam Pit, sued in Tennessee state court to gain access to files stored on government computers in Cookeville, a 26,500-person town about 75 miles east of Nashville.
Cookie files help Webmasters identify individual visitors to a site so that content can be customized and other information, such as user passwords, can be stored. Cookies also can provide a snapshot of a user's surfing habits.
Under Tennessee's public records act, government agencies are required to disclose most records in their possession. Last year, Davidian requested from Cookeville officials the cookie files as well as data concerning parking tickets. The municipality handed over paper records concerning the tickets, but said the computer files were not covered by the law.
Davidian filed suit in state court, but quickly moved the action to federal court when he added claims that Cookeville officials were violating his constitutional rights. In his ruling, however, Higgins tossed out those federal claims.
"The plaintiffs argue that the Tennessee Public Records Act grants the public access to the records at issue in this case," Higgins wrote, according to a portion of the ruling posted on Davidian's Web site. "While this may be true and could consequently result in a violation of state law, that act does not, in and of itself, mean that the City of Cookeville has, in actuality, traditionally allowed the public access to the records at issue."
The judge continued: "As that is the crucial issue in determining whether the plaintiffs have a First Amendment right to access the city's computer records," the federal claims must be dismissed.
Sam Harris, a Memphis attorney representing Davidian, said he intended to appeal the ruling. He added that he simultaneously would refile the case in state court in an attempt to clarify once and for all that computer files are covered by the statute.
"There's no question you can get public officials' phone records" under the public records act, Harris said in an interview. "How is it that Internet history files are any different?"
Cookeville officials were not immediately available for comment, but in an earlier interview, Michael O'Mara, city attorney for the municipality, equated cookie files to "scratching notes on a yellow pad and at the end of the day throwing them away."
Davidian's suit also challenged Cookeville's policy of selectively placing links to local businesses on its Web site. After the Putnam Pit was denied a link, Davidian amended his complaint to claim that Cookeville's site was akin to parks, street corners, or other public forums and that as such, Davidian was entitled to have his site included.
Judge Higgins rejected that argument, ruling that the site constitutes a "nonpublic forum," in which municipal officials may set "reasonable" limitations.