Neha Patil (Editor)

Courtroom photography and broadcasting

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Courtroom photographing and broadcasting is permitted in some courtrooms but not in others. Some argue that use of media during courtroom proceedings presents a mockery of the judicial system, though the issue has been contested at length. The presence of cameras can create fallacious information that can damage the reputation for the courts and the trust from the public and/or viewers observing the televised proceedings. Many famous trials, such as the O.J. Simpson murder trial, were televised. In the wake of the O.J. trial, however, many judges decided to ban cameras from their courtrooms. Immediately after that trial, California Governor Pete Wilson announced his opposition to televised trials, and he later asked the Judicial Council to consider reinstituting the ban on film and electronic media coverage of criminal trials. It has been argued, however, that the Simpson case was an anomaly that has little relation to the everyday concerns of media coverage of the criminal justice system.

Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 53 states, "Except as otherwise provided by a statute or these rules, the court must not permit the taking of photographs in the courtroom during judicial proceedings or the broadcasting of judicial proceedings from the courtroom." However, some federal courtrooms experimented with cameras from 1991 to 1994. The courts have thus far been unwilling to overturn the ban on cameras, citing "concerns with expenditure of judicial time on administration and oversight of broadcasting; the necessity of sequestering juries so that they will not look at the television program of the trial itself; the difficulty in empaneling an impartial jury in the case of a retrial; the necessity of larger jury panels or increased use of marshals; the psychological effects on witnesses, jurors, lawyers, and judges; and related considerations of 'solemnity,' 'dignity,' and the like." In 1996, Justice David Souter said, "The day you see a camera come into our courtroom it’s going to roll over my dead body." U.S. Senator Arlen Specter has proposed televising U.S. Supreme Court proceedings. The Sunshine in the Courtroom Act, introduced by Charles Grassley, would "authorize the presiding judge of a U.S. appellate court or U.S. district court to permit the photographing, electronic recording, broadcasting, or televising to the public of court proceedings over which that judge presides." The Senate Judiciary Committee has recommended that it be considered by the Senate as a whole.

In 1965, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, "The television industry, like other institutions, has a proper area of activities and limitations beyond which it cannot go with its cameras. That area does not extend into an American courtroom. On entering that hallowed sanctuary, where the lives, liberty and property of people are in jeopardy, television representatives have only the rights of the general public, namely, to be present, to observe the proceedings, and thereafter, if they choose, to report them." In the 1981 case Chandler v. Florida, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that televising trials does not, per se, violate due process. Although the U.S. Constitution contains a public trial clause, it has been argued that the requirement of a public trial was created and satisfied when there were no broadcasters or telecasters and few newspapers. In some cases, jury deliberations have been publicly broadcast.

In the United Kingdom, cameras have been banned from courtrooms since 1925, but it was announced in 2004 that they would be allowed on an experimental basis in a handful of cases. Some disadvantages of televised trials, from the point of view of the media, are that the proceedings are static visually, consume large amounts of TV crew time, and are sometimes difficult for the viewers to understand.


Daniel M. Kolkey argues that televising trials can distort the truth-seeking process of a criminal trial and chill witnesses' willingness to cooperate; that televising trials interferes with the privacy of victims, witnesses and defendants; that the decision whether to televise trials does not lend itself to a case-by-case determination; and that televising trials can transform them into a form of entertainment which can undermine the dignity of, and respect for, our judicial institutions. Bryan Goebel counter-argues that there is no evidence to support claims that cameras have any greater psychological effect than a packed courtroom of strangers or that the cameras undermine truthful testimony. It has been pointed out that inasmuch as no trial can be reproduced in laboratory conditions, scientific experimentation is not possible, and we thus have no empirical data on the effect of television on a criminal trial.

It has been argued that because the majority of Americans have had no personal experience with the legal system, and because the majority of Americans get their information about the world solely from television, the portrayal of justice on television is extremely important to the continued viability of the legal system and to the individual's understanding of that system. Senator Charles Schumer argued, "Courts are an important part of our government, and the more our government institutions are shown to the public, the more dignified they become, and the more the public comes to understand them. Allowing cameras into our courtrooms will help demystify them and let the public evaluate how well the system works." Justice Otto Moore of the Colorado Supreme Court opined in 1956, "Do we hear complaints that the employment of these modern devices of thought transmission in the pulpits of our great churches destroys the dignity of the service; that they degrade the pulpit or create misconceptions in the mind of the public? The answers are obvious. That which is carried out with dignity will not become undignified because more people may be permitted to see and hear." William O. Douglas argued that televising trials should not be allowed because the press can use it to pressure judges to decide a case a certain way, particularly in jurisdictions where judges are elected.

In reference to the argument that cameras make witnesses nervous, former jurist Louis Gohmert stated, "I think nervousness is a good thing in a witness. It makes potential inaccuracies come to the light and easier to observe." He responded to the argument that cameras may make witnesses more reluctant to testify by saying, "There is a thing called a subpoena," and noting that he "found that if people are not willing to come to court and they are reluctant to testify, officers with handcuffs and guns are very helpful."


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