New York High Court Says Camera Ban Constitutional

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Advocates for cameras in courtrooms brought their appeals to four states' high courts, winning one case and losing another.

The New York Court of Appeals upheld a state law banning televising trials, while the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled that a woman seeking to get a guilty verdict overturned needed to - but did not - prove that cameras disrupted her trial. Rulings are expected soon from the Florida Supreme Court, considering rules to ban cameras, and Georgia's high court, which is mulling whether to allow a small digital camera in court.

A lower court judge in Hawaii ruled that hearings must be held before any camera ban is implemented and, in New Mexico, a judge rejected a loose interpretation of the criteria required for a ban.

New York alone in barring cameras in courts

New York's ban on cameras in courtrooms does not violate the First Amendment or the New York Constitution, the state's highest court ruled unanimously June 16, ending a nearly four-year court battle over the issue. The decision means that New York is the only state totally barring cameras in the courtroom.

The New York Court of Appeals held that the press has no greater right of access to court proceedings than the general public under either the state or federal Constitution. While trials should be presumptively open, the government's primary interest is in a fair trial, Judge George Bundy Smith wrote for the court.

"The governmental interests of the right of a defendant to have a fair trial and for the trial court to maintain the integrity of the courtroom outweigh any absolute First Amendment or article I, section 8 right of the press or the public to have access to trials," Bundy wrote, referring to the section of the New York Constitution protecting freedom of the press.

The court also said it is up to the legislature - not the courts - to decide whether television crews will have permission to film in courtrooms. Two state lower courts had previously concluded the same, although individual judges have allowed cameras.

The television network Court TV sued to overturn the camera ban in September 2001, arguing that it interferes with the press and public rights of access to trials.

The high court disagreed, ruling that while the public may receive most of its information through the media, the press has no special rights. A ban on cameras is "not a restriction on the openness of court proceedings but rather on what means can be used in order to gather news," Smith wrote.

Civil Rights Law §52 bans cameras from courtrooms and other places where compulsory testimony is taken. Previous lawsuits had sought access to particular trials or court proceedings, but this was the first time the law, created in 1952, was directly challenged.

The court noted in its ruling that the legislature examined allowing camera access in four two-to-three-year experiments beginning in 1987 in which judges could let trials be filmed at their discretion. Reports on each experiment recommended lifting the ban, but the legislature chose not to act each time and then allowed the law permitting the experiments to expire in 1997.

Court TV Chairman and CEO Henry Schleiff said he saw a "very clear cue" in the court's decision for the legislature to act on the issue and is optimistic it will do so in its next session.

The Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press is one of several press organizations that joined a friend-of-the-court brief on Court TV's behalf.

Proposed new Florida rules undefined

The Florida Supreme Court is considering new rules that would allow judges deciding if cameras should be allowed in each trial in their courtrooms to consider "privacy" and "privileged and confidential matters," which are not defined in the proposed rules.

The court held oral arguments June 9 about the changes, which also would grant judges the authority to ban photographing jurors' faces without a hearing and to restrict the use of court security cameras. …