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Courtrooms should be presumed open to cameras, court rules

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    NMU         NEW HAMPSHIRE         Broadcasting         Dec 16, 2002    

Courtrooms should be presumed open to cameras, court rules

  • In a win for public access to courts, the state supreme court ruled that judges cannot bar cameras from their courtrooms without valid reasons and a hearing.

The state’s high court ruled Dec. 13 that camera access to courtrooms should be the standard in New Hampshire.

“A trial judge should permit the media to photograph, records and broadcast all courtroom proceedings that are open to the public,” wrote Justice Joseph P. Nadeau in the court’s opinion.

“Given our historic common law presumption in favor of open judicial proceedings, we conclude that the use of cameras by the electronic media is merely an extension of the reporting function of the more traditional arms of the press,” Nadeau wrote. Only if there is “substantial likelihood of harm to any person or other harmful consequences,” should a judge limit electronic media coverage and “only when no other practical alternative is available.”

The case began with media efforts to cover the trial of Robert Tulloch, one of two Vermont teenagers accused of murdering two Dartmouth professors in January 2001. The trial judge denied media requests for camera access without a hearing, citing “the infringement of the defendant’s constitutional right to a fair trial.” In addition, administrative policies in Grafton and Coos counties prohibited cameras in courtrooms.

After Tulloch plead guilty, the media petitioners, including WMUR Channel 9, The Boston Globe and the New Hampshire Association of Broadcasters, continued pursuing the case, asking the high court to better define the role of cameras in the state’s courts. The petitioners challenged both the lower court’s ruling and the administrative policies in Grafton and Coos counties.

Although the high court rejected the petitioners’ constitutional arguments because the media organizations were able to adequately cover the Tulloch proceedings, it did rule that the state should presume that courts are open to the public.

The Radio-Television News Directors Association and The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press urged the court in a friend-of-the-court brief to adopt a balancing test that “presumes openness.”

“Courts belong to the people,” the media organizations wrote in their brief. “Citizens have a right to know exactly what goes on in their courts, and all Americans should be able to get that information through whatever medium best affords them that right.”

In a Dec. 13 statement, RTNDA president Barbara Cochran applauded the decision.

“The court not only ruled in favor of bringing cameras into court, but also makes clear that a decision to keep cameras out must be based on fact, not guesswork,” Cochran stated.

(Petition of WMUR Channel 9; Media counsel: James P. Bassett, Orr & Reno, P.A., Concord, N.H.) JL

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© 2002 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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