Skip to content

On the Docket: A primer on rules governing cameras in courtroom

Post categories

  1. Court Access
RCFP's Paul McAdoo answers common questions about rules concerning recording devices in Tennessee state courtrooms.

This column was originally published in the February 2024 issue of The Tennessee Press, the official publication of the Tennessee Press Association.

In recent months, there has been a growing debate around the issue of allowing cameras in the courtroom. While much of the discussion has focused on former President Donald Trump’s upcoming trials in federal courts, I thought it might be helpful to take a deeper dive into the rules concerning cameras and other recording devices in Tennessee state courtrooms. 

The issue was a hot topic at the most recent Tennessee Judicial Conference I attended last October. While speaking on a conference panel about court access, I repeatedly heard questions about the rules concerning cameras in the courtroom, including whom they apply to and when. 

Paul McAdoo, RCFP's Local Legal Initiative attorney for Tennessee

Tennessee Supreme Court Rule 30 governs cameras and other technology in the courtroom. The rule is not very long, so I recommend reading it carefully if you have any interest in bringing a recording device to a trial you may be reporting on.

Under Rule 30, members of the news media who want to bring a recording device to the courtroom are required to submit a written request to the judge at least two business days before the trial, hearing, motion, or other proceeding they are covering is set to begin. This allows the court to notify the parties of the request and post a notice outside the courtroom that the proceeding will be recorded by the news media.

I should briefly pause to note that if you are attending a court proceeding equipped with only a pen and notebook in hand, the two-day advance notice requirement does not apply. That’s also true if you are carrying a personal hand-held cassette tape recorder that is “no more sensitive than the human ear,” as long as it is used for note-taking purposes and not for any other purpose, including broadcast. That provision, however, does not extend to digital recorders or smart phones.

A presiding judge can limit or deny requests to bring a camera or other recording devices into the courtroom for a handful of reasons outlined in Rule 30: to control the conduct of the proceedings, to prevent disruptions, to guarantee the safety of parties, witnesses, or jurors, and to “ensure the fair administration of justice.” There should be an evidentiary hearing on the question before a court denies or otherwise limits cameras in the courtroom.

Even after a judge grants a reporter’s request to bring a recording device into the courtroom, some prohibitions still apply. For example, you are not allowed to record minors, jury selection, jurors, and closed proceedings.

While some judges are completely comfortable with having cameras and other technology in their courtroom, others are not. For judges on either end of the spectrum, maintaining decorum is a critical issue. Scrupulous compliance with Rule 30 is crucial for both getting permission to bring cameras into the Tennessee state courtrooms and to keeping them there.

Use common sense. For instance, if a judge gives you permission to place a microphone at the witness stand, don’t do it in the middle of the proceeding. Instead, position the mic during a recess. In other words, don’t be a distraction. 

Another tip: If you’re granted permission to record a proceeding, get there early, set up your gear, and stay for the whole thing. There is even a provision in Rule 30 that states that “operating personnel shall not move about nor make any adjustment or change of any equipment which disrupts or distracts from the proceeding.”

In high-profile proceedings, it’s likely that there will be multiple requests from members of the news media to bring cameras and other technology to the courtroom. In those cases, Rule 30 requires the news media to make arrangements for “pooling” coverage. These arrangements must be worked out among the interested news outlets and communicated with court staff when the court is not in session. 

Again, your best bet in situations like this is to work as cooperatively as possible with your counterparts at other newsrooms and members of the judge’s staff. Doing so will convey to the judge that you are trying to ensure that your coverage will not in any way disrupt the proceedings. 

As mentioned above, I would encourage you to read all of Rule 30 to learn everything about the judiciary’s guidelines for technology in the courtroom, including more technical requirements. If your request to use recording devices in the courtroom is rejected by a judge, consider contacting your newsroom attorney for guidance on how to respond. If you don’t have an attorney, you can always contact me through the free Legal Hotline of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

Paul McAdoo is the Tennessee Local Legal Initiative attorney for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. He is based in Nashville.

Stay informed by signing up for our mailing list

Keep up with our work by signing up to receive our monthly newsletter. We'll send you updates about the cases we're doing with journalists, news organizations, and documentary filmmakers working to keep you informed.