News media press for court access

Posted Feb. 11, 2009, at 10:02 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 13, 2011, at 10:43 a.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — The Maine Supreme Judicial Court held a public hearing Wednesday on proposed revisions to its policy on the use of cameras and audio recording equipment that, if approved, would improve the news media’s access to some court proceedings.

Four organizations and two individuals submitted written comments before the hearing.

The Maine Press Association, which represents 29 daily and weekly newspapers throughout the state, supported the changes as proposed.

The Maine Association of Broadcasters, the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition and the Hearst Corp., owner of WMTW-TV in Portland, urged the court to go further than the proposed changes and allow cameras and recording equipment in every court proceeding that is open to the public.

Superior Court Justice Paul Fritzche of Alfred and lawyer Seth Carey of Rumford opposed the changes.

The justices did not comment on the proposal or ask questions.

Suzanne Goucher, president and CEO of MAB, which represents 140 radio and television stations in the state, was the only proponent or opponent to speak to the justices Wednesday during the 15-minute-long hearing.

“Our holy grail has always been full openness,” she said. “If a courtroom proceeding is open to the public, and thus by extension to a print reporter with his pencil and notebook, it should also be open to electronic media reporters with the tools of their trade, cameras and microphones.”

Maine, she said, is in the bottom third of states that permit camera coverage, according to the Radio-Television News Directors Association. The proposed changes would move Maine to the top of that bottom third.

“Tellingly, of the two-thirds of states with more openness than Maine, not one has felt compelled to reintroduce restrictions on coverage,” Goucher said. “The system works when it is allowed to work. It is not a given that three of our most important constitutional rights — the right to a free press, the right to a fair trial, and the right to a public trial — cannot coexist in relative harmony.”

In their written comments, Fritzche and Carey expressed concern for the rights of the accused in criminal matters if media access to court proceedings were to be expanded.

“Our primary objective must be to ensure a fair trial for all participants, particularly criminal defendants in high-profile trials,” Fritzche wrote. “The proposed changes will likely complicate the selection of juries because of expanded pretrial publicity, possibly intimidate jurors, potentially cause lawyers or self-represented defendants to behave badly and create security [problems].”

The First Amendment, according to Carey, does not guarantee the press the right to witness court proceedings.

“Their First Amendment rights are protected by being able to report on the result of the court proceeding when the judge issues his opinion,” he wrote. “To allow publicity of such matters, the accused do not receive a fair disposition in the court of public opinion. When the public only receives the typical kind of sensationalized version of proceedings that entices customers to tune in or buy the paper, justice is compromised.”

The proposed order is the result of more than two years of discussion among members of the Maine Committee on Media and the Courts. The group is composed of representatives of the court system and the state’s media outlets.

Currently, cameras and audio recording equipment, with the permission of the presiding judge, are allowed in District and Superior Court proceedings — including pretrial motion hearings and trials — except when testimony is being given.

The media most often cover first appearances, arraignments and sentencings in high-profile criminal cases. The news media now may cover any aspect of a trial that is open to the public, and restrictions apply only to photo and video coverage.

If approved, the new policy makes clear that cameras and recording devices may be used to capture opening and closing statements in criminal jury trials, judges’ instructions to juries and the reading of a verdict as long as jury members cannot be identified. Pretrial and post-trial hearings on issues such as bail, new trials and the suppression of evidence also could be photographed and recorded.

Judges would retain the discretionary power to deny or limit media coverage and to regulate the number of recording devices and their placement in court.

Family court proceedings would continue to be off limits, as would civil court proceedings in which sexual assault or sexual misconduct is alleged, unless all parties agree to coverage. Court sessions in which trade secrets might be revealed also would continue to be prohibited from camera coverage.

There is no timetable under which the justices must issue their decision.

jharrison@bangordailynews.net

990-8207

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