Utah’s court system began allowing TV cameras, smartphones and laptops into public court proceedings last year, but officials revised that rule after repeatedly denying one man’s requests to record family law proceedings.
The revision reverses the presumption that video cameras are allowed in family court proceedings, and, instead, lets the judge weigh a number of factors to decide when taping is allowed. Though judges made the rule effective immediately, Utah’s Judicial Council is considering comments from the public on the proposal until June 24 and plans to permanently vote on the rule change in August.
In January, family law attorney Eric Johnson began making dozens of recording requests for hundreds of divorce cases. Only one request was granted.
“When I make requests, they ignore me. And it’s pretty effective because the rule does not require them to respond,” said Johnson, who is based in Salt Lake City. “I have no appeals power under the rule. You can e-mail, you can call, but they just ignore it.”
Johnson says he wanted to educate the public by broadcasting divorce court on his YouTube news channel. But he says judges told him that the public wouldn’t be interested in the content he wished to obtain.
“They said that since the content is informational and educational, it’s not newsworthy,” Johnson said. “I thought to myself, you’ve just insulted every news organization in the county.”
Johnson said that judges also thought that he couldn’t be considered a reporter because he doesn’t record and disseminate content full-time. A court official told The Salt Lake Tribune that the rule change isn’t going to affect “legitimate news organizations” and their ability to cover the courts.
However, the court’s attempt to narrowly define a member of the press raised a red flag for media rights advocates like the state chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.
“The judges started denying Johnson’s requests by saying he’s an attorney, not a news reporter, even though the definition is designed to be flexible,” said media law attorney David Reymann, who is working with SPJ to comments in opposition to the rule change. “If you’re gathering and disseminating information, you should be considered a member of the press. It’s never a good idea to exclude non-traditional media.”
Reymann said that the court’s decision to enact the change even before the comment period ended was rare.
“It’s pretty clear that the rule change was driven to control Eric Johnson’s requests,” he added.
Reymann said he worries that banning camera access to family law proceedings could open the door to more restrictions in other types of cases.
“Right now it’s all divorce cases, but the next category could be all juvenile cases, then all cases with trade secrets,” Reymann said. “The exceptions are being driven despite public interest.”
Brent Johnson, general counsel for the Utah State Courts, told The Salt Lake Tribune that, “the law is sometimes about line-drawing.”
But Eric Johnson, the family law attorney, says he plans on raising the issue with the higher courts before Utah’s Judicial Council permanently votes on the rule change.
“The constitutional protections for freedom of the press are being infringed upon – I’m going to say, ‘Hey appellate court, look at these requests. The Courts are not complying,’” Johnson said. “And I hold out a realistic hope that the appellate court will understand.”
“The whole reason we have the First Amendment is the government can’t tell the press what it can and cannot report,” Johnson added.