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Ban on TV cameras in courts not unconstitutional

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NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   NEW YORK   ·   Broadcasting   ·   June 16, 2005


Ban on TV cameras in courts not unconstitutional

  • A New York state law barring television cameras from courtrooms violates neither the First Amendment nor a state constitutional provision prohibiting unlawful restraints on the press, the state’s highest court ruled Thursday.

June 16, 2005  ·   There is no right to televise a trial under either the First Amendment or the provision of the New York Constitution providing for a free press, the state’s highest court held Thursday.

The New York Court of Appeals unanimously upheld trial and appellate courts in ruling that a state law which has banned television cameras from courts since 1952 does not violate either constitution. Neither constitution gives the press any greater right of access than the general public, and determining whether cameras should be permitted in courtrooms is a legislative prerogative, the court ruled.

“What [the press] cannot do under the statute is bring cameras into the courtroom. This is not a restriction on the openness of court proceedings but rather on what means can be used in order to gather news. The media’s access is thus guaranteed. But it does not extend to a right to televise those proceedings,” Judge George Bundy Smith wrote.

The television network Court TV had argued in a September 2001 lawsuit that the ban violated the press’s right of access to trials and that allowing cameras would increase the public’s

access to information.

While the court acknowledged in its decision that “the public acquires information about trials chiefly through the press and electronic media,” it ruled that this special role does not bring with it any special rights of access.

The court noted that it had consistently ruled that the government’s primary interest is ensuring defendants receive fair trials, and that this interest outweighs the press and public’s right to access to trials. In a note attached to his opinion, Smith wrote that even if the camera ban affected a federal or state constitutional right, it would still not be overturned.

“This Court concludes that the statute is narrowly tailored to serve the government interests at issue, namely insuring that criminal defendants receive fair trials . . . , that witnesses are forthcoming in their testimony, . . . that the trial court has control of the courtroom and that the integrity of the trial is maintained,” Smith wrote.

The court also noted that the legislature had experimented with allowing cameras in courtrooms four times since 1987. Each time, reports on the experiments recommended allowing proceedings to be televised, and each time the legislature rejected that recommendation. In 1997, the experiments ended after the legislation allowing them was not renewed.

“We will not circumscribe the authority constitutionally delegated to the Legislature to determine whether audio-visual coverage of courtroom proceedings is in the best interest of the citizens of this state,” Smith wrote.

Court TV Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Henry Schleiff said he was not surprised by the ruling because the court is reluctant to intervene in what it sees as the legislature’s role. He said he was “cautiously optimistic” that the legislature would take “the very clear cue” from the court and act on allowing cameras in the courtroom in its next session.

“While we’re disappointed obviously that the Court of Appeals did not find the statute unconstitutional on its face, I do take some comfort, more than comfort, in the way [the court] very kind of clearly shouted, if you will, that the remedy is in the hands, or should be in the hands of the legislature,” Schleiff said.

“I think this was a process that we had to allow play out,” Schleiff added.

The suit was the first time the ban, section 52 of the state’s Civil Rights Law, was itself directly challenged in court. Previous suits had only sought access to individual cases. Several media outlets and press associations, including The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, joined a friend-of-the-court brief on Court TV’s behalf.

(Courtroom Television Network LLC v. The State of New York, et al., Media Counsel: David Boies, Boies, Schiller & Flexner LLP, Armonk, N.Y.)TS

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