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Minn. pilot program to test cameras-in-courts policy

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  1. Newsgathering
The Minnesota Supreme Court has approved a "pilot project" to allow cameras in courtroom proceedings, with a judge's approval. "This pilot project…

The Minnesota Supreme Court has approved a "pilot project" to allow cameras in courtroom proceedings, with a judge’s approval.

"This pilot project will provide the court with additional information important to any final decision it might make regarding the presence or absence of cameras in the courtroom on a statewide basis," the high court said in a memorandum for the Feb. 12 order, signed by Chief Justice Eric Magnuson.

The order calls for an advisory committee, working with media group petitioners such as the Minnesota Newspaper Association and the Society of Professional Journalists, to recommend a draft of rules for the court on how to address various concerns about the change. For one, the court said it is unclear "whether the prospect of televised proceedings has a chilling impact on victims and witnesses."

Still, the memo said, "Most states allow cameras in the courtroom, and the evidence seems clear that cameras themselves do not impact the actual in-court proceedings." The recommendations are due by Jan. 15, 2010.

In his dissent from the opinion, Justice Alan Page worried that negative racial stereotypes could be reinforced through biased news coverage if cameras are allowed inside courtrooms: "[T]he expanded use of cameras will do nothing to assist in the elimination of racial bias from our judicial system and will, in fact, exacerbate the problem," Page wrote.

Mark Anfinson, a Minnesota-based media attorney who represented the petitioning media groups, said Page’s concerns were important and legitimate, but lacked supporting evidence.

"It’s not enough to speculate that these bad things might happen," he said.  "And the resounding verdict from across the country," such as in Florida, Iowa and Ohio, is that there is no serious evidence to supports Page’s claim.

Last month, a three-judge panel granted electronic media access in the U.S. Senate election dispute between Republican incumbent Norm Coleman and Democratic challenger Al Franken.  A TV camera, a still photographer and an audio recorder have been permitted into the proceedings, and their news outlets have been encouraged to share their material with others.

Anfinson called the order "a breakthrough," but joked he was "reluctant to overdramatize" the order since 36 other states have broader cameras-in-court rules.