New York appeals court upholds constitutionality of state camera ban
From the Summer 2004 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 40.
Court TV’s constitutional challenge of a New York law that bans video cameras from trial courts was sent back to the proverbial editing room.
The Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court unanimously ruled June 22 against Court TV’s right to televise trials under a First Amendment claim of public access. The ruling upheld a July 2003 lower-court decision that affirmed the constitutionality of the ban, enacted in 1952.
Court TV’s suit was the first to directly challenge New York Civil Rights Law §52, which bars televising, broadcasting and the taking of motion pictures from any courtroom in which compulsory testimony may be elicited. However, the law permits a judge to allow cameras in the courtroom in order to serve the public interest. In February 2002, Supreme Court Justice Nicholas Colabella in New York City did as much when he ruled the ban unconstitutional to allow cameras in the bribery case of a Brooklyn judge .
The Appellate Division agreed that openness of trials enhances fairness and the outward appearance of fairness. However, the court held that “the value of openness lies not in the fact of how many people actually attend (or watch a broadcast of) a trial, but in the fact that people not actually attending trials can have confidence that standards of fairness are being observed.”
The court cited the U.S. Court of Appeals in New York City (2nd Cir.), which had held that the Constitution “articulates a right to attend trials, not a right to view them on a television screen.”
Court TV managing editor Fred Graham said the courts and legislature in New York have long maintained an anachronistic view of television.
“The First Amendment values of the public are being sacrificed,” said Graham, a Peabody Award-winner who serves on the steering committee of The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. “Television has changed in the past 50 years since New York passed this law banning cameras.
“The American comfort level with television has changed, and the majority of news obtained today is from the television,” he added.
New York allowed cameras in state courtrooms during a 10-year experiment that concluded in 1997. Some courts in New York still allowed TV coverage after the experiment, including the controversial 2000 case of four white New York City police officers who shot an unarmed black man 41 times. All four officers were found not guilty of murdering Amadou Diallo, a West African immigrant.
Just weeks before the Appellate Division ruling against Court TV, County Court Judge Martin E. Smith of Binghamton banned all cameras from the murder trial of Vernon E. Parker Jr. Parker, who is charged with killing Binghamton resident Valerie Spears and her 14-year-old daughter, Devin, in July 2002.
Smith ruled from the bench in August 2002 that publicity stemming from still photographs and video broadcasts could prejudice jurors. He added that cameras may be allowed in the trial of Parker’s alleged accomplice, Robert L. Williams, but only after a verdict is reached in Parker’s case. Parker’s trial is scheduled to begin Sept. 13.
The Appellate Division shared the opinion of the district court judge who initially ruled against Court TV’s constitutional claim, saying the decision to change the law belongs to the state legislature.
The responsibility to uphold the rights of the public, however, is the responsibility of the judiciary, Graham said.
“First Amendment values should be protected by the court when the legislature defaults in dealing with the issue,” Graham said. “The judge told us to go to the legislature to get this law overturned, but the New York legislature is a dysfunctional institution . . . so we went to the courts.”
Recording Devices Banned from Court Martial Proceedings
The Pentagon announced in May that all cameras and tape recorders will be banned from the seven court martial proceedings arising from the prisoner abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Members of the news media are allowed to attend the proceedings — presided over by military judges presently stationed at U.S. Army bases worldwide — but such access was of little solace to broadcasters throughout the Middle East.
On May 20, Army reservist Jeremy Sivits received a maximum sentence of one year in jail, reduction in rank and a bad conduct discharge. Nonetheless, Arab television coverage focused more on the camera ban than Sivits’ sentence. Al-Jazeera TV, a satellite station based out of Doha, Qatar, said the U.S. military’s decision to bar cameras could “increase the ambiguity” surrounding all of the cases.
Octavia Nasr, senior editor for Arab Affairs at CNN, told the network that the camera ban would likely limit how seriously the Arab media covers the proceedings.
“These [Arab media] are people that depend a lot on cameras,” Nasr said. “The U.S. criticized these guys for fabricating stories and making stories up. So now they are saying, ‘[I] want cameras in the courtroom because that’s what I am going to report . . . what the camera is going to see.’ ”
According to a spokesperson for the Department of Justice, court martial proceedings follow the same procedural rules as federal courts do: cameras are not allowed inside the courtroom.
Connecticut Supreme Court Allows Live TV Coverage
The Connecticut Supreme Court in June allowed live television coverage of oral arguments concerning whether Gov. John Rowland could be compelled to testify before a legislative impeachment panel. It was the first live broadcast of proceedings before Connecticut’s highest court.
Three days later, Rowland resigned after revelations that he had accepted gifts from friends, state contractors and state employees.
The court had previously allowed the Connecticut Network, a statewide public affairs station, permission to rebroadcast more than 200 oral arguments before them in the past four years, but court rules had always prohibited live coverage. The court said in a statement that the public interest and the historic importance of a visual record of the arguments compelled it to make an exception.
“Here we have a case involving the critical question of separation of powers and the potential impeachment of the governor,” said Connecticut Network Chairman Patrick Sheehan in a public statement. “Certainly the issue is of great significance to the people of the state, and the courts should promote public understanding of the judiciary’s role in this process.”
Cameras Banned From Trial of Cleveland Officer
Judge Mabel Jasper of Municipal Court in Cleveland banned photographers in June from the assault trial of Cleveland Police Officer Kevin Fischbach. Jasper held that cameras would distract trial participants and could have potentially harmful effects on the defendant and his family.
Fischbach was found guilty June 21 of attacking his lover’s husband, Jeffrey Moore, in a barroom brawl and of dereliction of duty. Fischbach was sentenced to 45 days in jail, plus probation, 100 hours of community service and $1,600 in fines.
In banning cameras from Fischbach’s trial, Jasper noted that she intended to do the same for the trials of Lt. Robert Stitt and Officer Brian Fischer, who are charged with dereliction of duty and assault for the same fight. Those trials were scheduled to begin in late July.
Kentucky Court Bans Cameras from Murder Trial
Judge Thomas Castlen of Circuit Court in Scottsville, Ky., banned TV cameras and newspaper photographers from the sensational murder trial of Lucas Goodrum, 22. Goodrum is accused of murder, rape, sodomy and arson in the death of Western Kentucky University student Katie Autry.
Both the prosecution and the defense agreed with the judge that cameras should not be allowed in the courtroom during the trial, scheduled to begin July 30, because they would be “distracting” to trial participants. Castlen allowed a closed-circuit television camera in the courtroom to provide live feeds to an overflow media room.
Rhode Island Judge Denies Ban Request
Presiding Justice Joseph F. Rodgers Jr. of Superior Court in Providence, R.I., denied a defense attorney’s request to ban cameras from the courtroom or to prohibit the media from publishing or broadcasting gruesome photographs submitted as exhibits in the murder trial of Kenneth D. Day.
Day was found guilty June 10 of nine counts of murder, car-jacking, robbery and conspiracy for abducting and shooting two college students with the aid of four other suspects in June 2000.
In ruling in favor of media access, Rodgers stressed that the court’s first priority was guaranteeing Day a fair trial. However, he noted that the jury was going to see the trial exhibits regardless of whether cameras were in the courtroom.
“There has been no showing of any prejudice this defendant would receive,” from allowing cameras to record the trial, Rodgers held. “The issue is the ability of the media to publish full exhibits, and there is nothing the court can really do to interfere with that right.”