The case for cameras in court 

Most trials are not on camera. Should they be?

Page 5 of 7

Other states are taking a more proactive approach to letting citizens see into courts. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court of Illinois invited circuit courts and media to participate in an experimental program that would allow electronic trial coverage. Chief Justice Thomas L. Kilbride described the move as "another step to bring more transparency and more accountability to the Illinois court system."

Kilbride wrote: "The provisions of this new policy keep discretion in the chief circuit judge and the trial judge to assure that a fair and impartial trial is not compromised, yet affords a closer look at the workings of our court system to the public through the eyes of the electronic news media and news photographers."

Other states have also enacted rules establishing how smart phones, laptop computers and other wireless devices can be used in court. Several permit people, except jurors, to use electronic devices to silently take notes and to transmit them, as text, to news outlets, blogs, and sites such as Twitter.

Sullivan, formerly of TruTV, said such rules are needed. "We've gotten to a place technologically in which there is no difference between a video camera and the eyes and ears of a reporter from a newspaper. In fact, in many ways, the technology is more reliable because the camera can only be accurate."

Where courts have refused to allow cameras, the results have sometimes been absurd. Interest was high nationally in California's Proposition 8, which limited marriage to a man and a woman. But broadcast of a federal hearing on it was not allowed. Enterprising producers filled the void by having actors recreate what happened in the courtroom using transcripts from the hearing and notes taken by observers who'd attended.

Later, U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker, who presided, asked rhetorically: "Would you rather have people know what happened by way of reenactments or by the real thing?" He answered: "The real thing is always much better."

WBUR's 'test kitchen'

On May 2, 2011, a National Public Radio station in Boston began live-streaming civil proceedings from a district court in the nearby town of Quincy. The experimental project, called OpenCourt, was funded with a $1 million grant from the Knight Foundation. The goal, as a producer put it, was to allow the public to see "how justice is done."

The staff at WBUR worked with court officials to address concerns, such as those raised by Judge Wright, about who could be recorded, by whom and when. Rules are being developed as the experiment continues. Ultimately, court officials decided to leave Wright's main concern, about participants "performing" for the cameras — and another, about certain media decisions — to the parties' sense of professional responsibility.

Thus, for the past year and a half, anyone with an Internet connection has been able to see and hear live proceedings from that court. In June, OpenCourt began placing its archives of those proceedings online. According to the project's website, its creators hope that by confronting legal and technical issues in this one "test kitchen," it can help other courts "by highlighting our most important mistakes and successes."

The project was permitted under a Massachusetts high court rule, approved in 2000. That rule, like Arkansas's, permits the use of cameras in district courts with certain limitations. But once live-streaming from the Quincy court began, it was immediately challenged by a prosecutor, a group of defense attorneys, and a defendant.


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