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Court rejects Court TV’s bid to televise terrorism trial

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    NMU         VIRGINIA         Broadcasting         Jan 18, 2002    

Court rejects Court TV’s bid to televise terrorism trial

  • A federal judge ruled that televising terrorism trials would intimidate witnesses and pose a threat to security.

A federal judge has denied Court TV’s request to televise the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui. Moussaoui has been charged with six counts of conspiracy arising from the September 11th attacks.

Federal court rules currently impose a ban on cameras in the courtroom. Court TV had filed a motion with the court, asking it to rule that the per se ban on cameras was unconstitutional and no longer practical, given advances in technology. Court TV, later joined in the motion by C-SPAN, sought to provide the public with gavel-to-gavel coverage of the trial. However, Court TV also proposed that it would block out the faces of any witness who requested that his or her face not be shown, and stated that it would not show the jurors.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the Radio-Television News Directors Association, CNN, NBC, CBS and ABC filed an amici curiae brief in support of Court TV.

Moussaoui’s lawyers said there client had no objection to the media’s motion as long as pre-trial television coverage was not allowed and rebroadcast of trial video was not allowed.

Federal District Judge Leonie Brinkema denied the media’s motion on Jan.18, stating that the ban on cameras in the courtroom is not unconstitutional. She also expressed concerns that televising the trial would create security problems.

Brinkema stated that “any societal benefits from photographing and broadcasting these proceedings are heavily outweighed by the significant dangers worldwide broadcasting of this trial would pose to the orderly and secure administration of justice.”

Court TV had argued that the ban on cameras is unconstitutional because it discriminates between print and broadcast media. The network argued that the traditional justification for the distinction is no longer valid. In the mid-1900’s, televising a trial created a disruption because the equipment was bulky and obtrusive. But with modern technology, such problems no longer exist.

The amici argued in their brief that televised proceedings would allow the public to observe the trial and feel a sense of resolution regarding the September 11th attacks.

Brinkema ruled that the ban on camera coverage was constitutional. She found that the right of access was satisfied because “some” members of the media and public could attend the proceedings. Also, transcripts of proceedings would be made available electronically within three hours of the close of each’s court session.

Brinkema stated, “Contrary to what intervenors and amici have argued, the inability of every interested person to attend the trial in person or observe it through the surrogate of the media does not raise a question of constitutional proportion. Rather, this is a question of social and political policy best left to the United States Congress and the Judicial Conference of the United States.”

The court also said that even if the rule were unconstitutional,. it would still be acceptable to ban cameras in this case because of security concerns. Brinkema was concerned that witnesses might be intimidated by the prospect of televised coverage of their testimony. The judge admitted that cameras were now unobtrusive, but now witnesses could be afraid that “his or her face or voice may be forever publicly known and available to anyone in the world.” She also expressed a concern that the safety of the court and its personnel might be compromised by broadcasting photographic images of the physical layout of the court and of court personnel. Finally, the judge determined that there was a risk of “showmanship,” evidenced by Moussaoui himself, who behaved erratically at his arraignment.

(U.S. v. Moussaoui; media counsel, Lee Levine, Levine Sullivan & Koch, Washington, DC) AG

© 2002 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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