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Reporters Committee expresses disappointment in decision overturning broadcast access to Nichols' proceedings

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The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press today expressed disappointment in the decision of the Oklahoma Court of Criminal…

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press today expressed disappointment in the decision of the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals to reverse a lower court judge and ban all television coverage of the court proceedings of accused Oklahoma bombing suspect Terry Nichols.

The appellate court dismissed the findings that Associate District Judge Robert Murphy Jr. had issued in his 25-page May 8 opinion. The court concluded, without discussing any factual background, that banning broadcast of “any and all court proceedings” was mandated “[i]n order to ensure the solemnity of the judicial proceedings, to minimize the potential tainting of a possible future jury pool, to curtail outside interference with these criminal proceedings, and to ensure the reliability of the result ultimately determined in this case.”

“Judge Murphy had taken considerable time to consider testimony about cameras in courtrooms and to write a thoughtful opinion on their use in criminal trials. The appeals court appears to have ignored his findings,” said Lucy A. Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee. “It is particularly distressing that the appeals court overturned the decision based merely on a petition from the state and the defendant. Counsel for the media companies who had sought permission to broadcast the trial were not even allowed the opportunity to respond to the petitioners at the appeals stage.”

The appellate court cited three U.S. Supreme Court cases in its opinion, two of which precede the Court’s later determination that the public enjoys a presumptive First Amendment right to attend criminal proceedings and one of which concerned access to pieces of evidence used in a trial and not the right of the media to broadcast a court proceeding.

Murphy’s detailed opinion had discussed both the First Amendment jurisprudence and the factual findings underpinning his conclusion that a canon in the Oklahoma Code of Judicial Conduct that allowed a criminal defendant to refuse to have any portion of his or her trial broadcast violated the state and federal constitutions. He had meticulously described the underpinnings for his conclusion that trial participants act more professionally when a camera is present in the courtroom and that the camera neither detracts from the dignity of the proceedings nor distracts parties and witnesses.

“The issue raised . . . is not whether this proceeding will generate publicity,” Murphy wrote in the overturned opinion. “It already has. The issue . . . is whether the public should be limited to second hand summaries of the news, prejudicial inflammatory characterizations by interested third parties; or whether they will be able to see for themselves what actually transpires in court under the control of the presiding judge.”

The Reporters Committee is a voluntary, unincorporated association of reporters and news editors dedicated to protecting the First Amendment interests of the news media. It has provided research, guidance and representation in major press cases in state and federal courts, including in cases concerning cameras in the courtroom.