Judge allows one camera, bars other reporters from courtroom
GEORGIA–A judge in an Atlanta Municipal Court, stating that there was not enough space for more than one journalist in a courtroom, allowed only one video camera operator to attend a preliminary hearing in early October.
Pro Hac Vice Magistrate Jacqueline Bennett ejected two print reporters and one camera operator from the hearing, but allowed another video camera operator into the hearing and instructed her to make the tape of the hearing available to other members of the media.
An article in the Fulton County Daily Report said Judge Bennett stated that because all four courtrooms of the building were being used and “we don’t have the money to keep continuing cases,” Bennett designated the conference room of the clerk of the court as the location for the hearing, the article said.
Judy Bailey, a reporter covering the case for the Fulton County Daily Report said she received a tip that a criminal defense attorney was going to be arraigned on charges of child molestation.
When Bailey arrived at the courtroom where the informant told her the case would be heard, she said the defendant’s name was not posted. A bailiff told her that the case was scheduled to be heard in Courtroom 5, which was in a restricted area. A clerk then told Bailey she would need permission to go into the courtroom. Bailey said that after she and other reporters waited outside the courtroom for 40 minutes, the bailiff told the video photographer for Atlanta’s television station WXIA, Kathleen Bourne, that she could set up her equipment.
When the bailiff told another video photographer and two print reporters that they would not be allowed into the hearing, the journalists called their employers for advice. But, Bailey said, within ten minutes the judge had dismissed the charges.
“At no point was there an opportunity to state our case about access to the court,” said Bailey.
After the hearing, Bailey said, Bennett came into the lobby and told the reporters that she had closed the court because there was not enough space, and that she did not have to explain anything to the reporters.
Even though Bailey subsequently viewed the tape of the hearing and wrote an article about it, she still expressed concern about the incident. Bailey explained, “In Georgia there are a lot of high- profile murder cases where the pre-trial hearings are being closed. It’s not just that reporters were denied access, the public was denied access. This court was held in what a bailiff called a restricted area. There was no public posting of the hearing like there was for all of the other defendants.”
Kathleen Bourne said twelve people, including herself, were in the conference room for the hearing. Judge Bennett did not return a reporter’s calls about the incident.
“The point is,” Bailey said, “The judge could call the court in a closet and say there’s not enough room.”