Court upholds constitutionality of state camera ban

Content Regulation | Feature | July 16, 2003

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Court upholds constitutionality of state camera ban

  • Court TV plans to appeal a decision allowing a 51-year-old law that prohibits cameras in courts to stand.

July 16, 2003 -- A New York judge on Tuesday rejected an expansive reading of the state's constitution that would have lifted a half-century ban on cameras in trial courts.

Court TV filed the first-ever suit to directly challenge the 1952 law, arguing that it violated the New York constitution's guarantee that the public and press can attend trials. Previous challenges have come in individual cases and have centered around a particular party's request for camera access.

But state Supreme Court Justice Shirley Kornreich said a judicial declaration of unconstitutionality was an improper way to change the law.

"A State constitutional rule expanding the rights of the media in New York to include the right to photograph and broadcast court proceedings would derail what is, and always has been, a legislative process," Kornreich wrote.

The statute at issue is Section 52 of the state's Civil Rights Law, which became law when televised hearings were used to intimidate suspected Communist party members. In addition to claims the law violated the state constitution, Court TV also sought a declaration that the law hinders a First Amendment right of access to courts.

During arguments in June, Court TV lawyer David Boies said the public should get an "unfiltered" view of courtroom proceedings.

"Is the public going to see and hear what's actually going on? Or are they going to see and hear other people's characterizations?" Boies asked the court.

Cameras were allowed in New York courts during a 10-year experiment that ended in 1997. New York is one of nine states that bans cameras at trial courts, and state courts have upheld the constitutionality of the statute in the past. Some judges have allowed cameras in their courtroom despite the ban.

Kornreich said the 1990s experiment with cameras in the courtroom lead to a rational conclusion that the law advances the state's interest in fair trials.

"As the New York experience developed, and observation of the experiments became successfully more objective and comprehensive, concerns about the effect of audio visual coverage on trial participants persisted and even increased," Kornreich wrote. "There was credible testimony that some witnesses had been deterred from testifying by the prospect of being filmed, while others had been negatively affected at trial."

Court TV also argued that most New Yorkers get their news from television and that is why televised trials are the best way to provide public access to courtrooms.

Kornreich said the record did not support that New York citizens need or expect televised trials. Citing a poll that found 61 percent of New Yorkers thought audio-visual coverage was a bad idea, she said lawmakers and voters "remained unconvinced that the social value of televising trials outweighed the risk."

Jonathan Sherman, an associate to Court TV lawyer David Boies, told The Associated Press that the network would "quickly and vigorously appeal" the ruling.

Cameras have been allowed in state courts in the past after challenges in specific cases. In 2000, for example, a judge in Albany found an absolute ban on cameras in state courts unconstitutional in the case of four officers accused of the second-degree murder of Amadou Diallo. That case was not appealed.

(Courtroom Television LLC v. New York; Media counsel: David Boies, Boies, Schiller & Flexner, New York City) -- KH

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