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State high court says cameras affect fair trial

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State high court says cameras affect fair trial06/16/95 MISSISSIPPI--The Supreme Court of Mississippi upheld a ban on cameras in the…

State high court says cameras affect fair trial

06/16/95

MISSISSIPPI–The Supreme Court of Mississippi upheld a ban on cameras in the courtroom in early June. The state is one of only three that prohibits cameras in judicial proceedings. However, a concurring opinion by the high court’s chief justice warned that there are serious constitutional questions about denying the media camera access.

Although Chief Justice Armis Hawkins joined a unanimous court in upholding the ban, he rejected the majority’s position that the ruling did not discriminate against electronic media and photojournalists. Hawkins said he sided with the majority out of concern that television broadcasts might affect the fairness of trials.

In 1991, the Associated Press and a group of local television stations and newspapers filed suit after Judge L. Breland Hilburn excluded still and video cameras from the courtroom during the murder trial of Byron de la Beckwith. In Mississippi, cameras are allowed at trials only under special circumstances, such as to preserve testimony or evidence or to prepare instructional programs for educational institutions.

Arguing that the Mississippi law discriminates against electronic media by preventing them from adequately reporting the news, the media parties claimed they were denied equal protection of the law guaranteed by the Fifth and Fourteenth amendments. They argued that the right to photograph and broadcast from inside the courtroom is a fundamental right afforded a high level of constitutional protection.

The majority of the court, however, held that the media parties’ claim was not a fundamental right and thus refused to apply strict judicial scrutiny. The court noted that the “constitutional right of speech and the press is satisfied by allowing the press to attend the trial and report what they have heard,” but “there is no constitutional right to have testimony recorded and broadcast.”

The court further held that the camera ban law is constitutional since it is rationally related to the government’s interest in preserving decorum, preserving the truth-seeking function of a trial and protecting a defendant’s rights.

The majority held that a television reporter who is denied the right to bring a camera in courtroom is not being discriminated against, because a newspaper reporter cannot bring a typewriter into the courtroom.

In his concurring opinion, Hawkins and a second justice denounced the majority’s view that there is no discriminatory treatment. “That is about like saying to a newspaper reporter that he cannot bring a pad and pencil into the courtroom,” Hawkins wrote. Hawkins agreed the ban should be upheld, however, until it can be demonstrated that televising a trial has no adverse impact on the courtroom participants and does not present a danger of adversely affecting public opinion and denying the accused a fair trial. (AP v. Bost; Media Counsel: Terryl Rushing)