In a decision on whether a student could record court proceedings, the Court of Appeals of Georgia stated this week that courts risk harming key constitutional rights by attempting to distinguish who is “legitimate ‘news media.’”
Joshua McLaurin, a student at Yale Law School, asked to record criminal proceedings in two different counties in July 2013 for a project examining the experiences of impoverished defendants in the Georgia criminal justice system.
McLaurin cited two different Georgia laws in his application: Uniform Superior Court Rule 22 and a section of the Georgia code regarding general standards for requesting permission to record court proceedings. The trial court held that Rule 22 only applies to news media, so it applied the Georgia code instead.
However, the appeals court, in McLaurin v. Ott, stated that any attempt by the court to distinguish who can be treated as legitimate news media “impinges on a core foundational principle.”
Peter Canfield, a media attorney and partner at Jones Day in Atlanta, said this ruling makes clear that the court must disregard whether a person works for the media and instead make decisions on who can record based on whether the applicant follows the court’s procedures.
“A court is certainly entitled to protect the dignity and orderliness of proceedings in the court,” Canfield said. But, he said, this week’s ruling shows that a court shouldn’t make decisions on who can record based on how the final product will portray the proceedings.
The appellate court found the trial court’s rejection of Rule 22 harmless because both that rule and the Georgia code consider the same factors in determining whether someone can record. For example, they look at the nature of the proceeding; whether the parties gave consent; and the impact on due process and court administration.
The trial court found that allowing McLaurin to film would unduly burden the court and would do little to promote increased public access.
The appellate court stressed that Georgia law favors open judicial proceedings. It sent the case back to the lower court with the instruction that it must make a clear factual finding that filming would cause an excessive burden on the proceedings.