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Photographers narrowly escape contempt in California

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    NMU         CALIFORNIA         Newsgathering         Sep 21, 2001    

Photographers narrowly escape contempt in California

  • A judge in Alameda County dropped contempt charges against two photographers capturing images in courthouses — but not the courtroom — without prior consent.

A California superior court judge cleared up rules governing media access to state courts by dropping contempt charges for photographers who shot pictures in courthouses without permission.

The California Rules for Court do not prevent journalists from taking photos in a juvenile court hallway or filming in a courthouse office room, ruled Judge Richard Hodge from the bench in two separate hearings on Sept.13. But he added that the regulations may be changed.

“Under the existing orders, rules and statutes, there is no restriction on photography in the hallway that would make it possible to order a contempt charge,” said John Carne, attorney for Sean Connelley, an Oakland Tribune photographer charged with contempt.

Hodge made it very clear, however, that a constitutional order could be drafted to restrict future courthouse photography, Carne said.

Two contempt hearings arose from the murkiness of California’s Rule 980. According to the rule, photographers need written permission from a judge to shoot pictures and video footage inside a courtroom. The statute does not address other areas in and around the courthouse, and, as a result, courthouses around the San Francisco Bay Area have developed different standards for photography.

“For decades, the news media have gone into these courthouses and taped in and around them,” said Roland DeWolk, the KTVU/Channel 2 producer who was threatened by police and a judge for filming from an office room in an Oakland courthouse. “Police, judges and district attorneys cannot treat these public facilities as if they are their private domain.”

DeWolk and his crew entered an office room to shoot footage for a story about a civil-rights lawsuit while a clerk sought permission from Judge Alan Hymer. They finished the shot and retreated to the sidewalk to film the courthouse exterior. There, they were approached by police and told they could not film, DeWolk said.

Hymer denied the request from the clerk and later ordered a contempt hearing for the KTVU producer.

The other case ruled by Hodge on the same day involved Connelley, an Oakland Tribune photographer who was covering a juvenile-dependency proceeding that had evolved into a federal action against the City of Alameda. In a courthouse hallway, Connelley photographed a child involved with the case with permission from the child’s mother, but not presiding Judge Brenda Harbin-Forte.

Harbin-Forte summoned Connelley and Tribune reporter Donna Horowitz, ordering that the film be destroyed. A contempt hearing was also ordered by Harbin-Forte, and the Tribune’s access to future juvenile hearings was limited, said the Tribune’s attorney John Carne.

These orders were later vacated by Judge Hodge, Carne said, because the judge had acted outside her limits.

(People v. DeWolk; Media Counsel: Stephen Kaus, Cooper, White and Cooper, San Fransisco; Re: Donna Horowitz, Sean Connelley, and ANG Newspapers; Media Counsel: John Carne, Crosby, Heafey, Roach and May, Oakland) GR

© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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