Letter advocating increased camera access in New York’s courtrooms

On October 3, 2013, The Club co-signed a letter to New York State Governor Andrew M. Cuomo advocating for increasing camera access to the state’s courtrooms.

October 3, 2013

The Honorable Andrew M. Cuomo
Governor of New York State
NYS State Capitol Building
Albany, NY 12224

RE: In Support of Cameras in the Courtroom

Dear Governor Cuomo:

As general counsel for the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) I write to you on behalf of the thirty-six (36) media organizations listed below to express our unequivocal support for cameras in the courtroom. Earlier this year New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, announced “a legislative proposal to expand camera coverage of courtroom proceedings” in his address regarding “The State of the Judiciary 2013.” Under that proposal, “all court proceedings — including the testimony of witnesses at hearings and trial — will be open to cameras at the discretion of the judge presiding over the case.”

With the advent of the new legislative session we urge you to exercise your ongoing leadership to ensure that New York’s court system, which has been a beacon of enlightened judicial policies for the nation, does not continue to be held back by a woefully anachronistic ban on audio-visual coverage enacted at a time when televisions used vacuum tubes and at best could receive 12 channels, broadcast in black & white for a few hours a day.

As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once stated, “it is revolting to have no better reason for a rule of law than that so it was laid down in the time of Henry IV. It is still more revolting if the grounds upon which it was laid down have vanished long since, and the rule simply persists from blind imitation of the past.”

In its 2005 decision in Courtroom Television Network LLC v. The State of New York, the Court of Appeals noted that it “will not circumscribe the authority constitutionally delegated to the Legislature to determine whether audio-visual coverage of courtroom proceedings is in the best interest of the citizens of this state.” By this letter we encourage you and the legislature to now act in the public interest by introducing and quickly enacting a bill amending NYS Civil Rights Law § 52 permitting such coverage at the discretion of the presiding judge.

Although some opponents of cameras in the courtroom have conjectured that such coverage may interfere with the right to a fair trial or cause some other irreparable harm, empirical studies of such objections have proved those concerns to be chimerical at best. Those objections have either been specifically refuted by prior experiments with and studies of audiovisual coverage in the courts, or can be expressly addressed by enacting intrinsic safeguards to complement judicial trial court discretion such as 22 NYCRR 131, The Rules of the Chief Administrator regarding Audio-Visual Coverage of Judicial Proceedings.

As noted by the Court of Appeals in its decision:

After each experiment, lasting approximately two to three years, the Legislature reviewed the findings and reports on audiovisual equipment in the courtroom, all of which recommended cameras in the courtroom, and, after each review, rejected the recommendation. On June 30, 1997, the Legislature and Governor allowed Judiciary Law § 218 to sunset. Thus, the ban on televised trials contained in Civil Rights Law § 52 resumed as of July 1, 1997, a ban which continues to the present. Despite the technological improvements to audiovisual equipment, which renders its presence in courtrooms less obtrusive, the Legislature has not seen fit since 1997 to amend section 52 or reenact section 218

Courtroom Television

We strongly believe that, after more than half a century, it is time for the legislature to acknowledge reality. Rather than “shooting the messenger,” one need look no further thanPeople v Boss and the acquittal in 2000 of four NYPD officers for the murder of Amadou Diallo to apprehend the benefits of televised court proceedings. A New York Times editorial stated, the “decision to permit cameras in the courtroom allowed the public to understand the legal complexities of the officers’ claims of self-defense.” That see-it-for-yourself capability is even more important today in an age of Twitter, Facebook and text messaging.

The Internet has enabled gavel-to-gavel audio-visual coverage of courtroom proceedings because of its intrinsic capacity to permit unlimited content rather than be bound by the time constraints of traditional broadcast and cable programming. Additionally, newspaper websites have made it possible for the print media to also provide audio-visual coverage where they previously were relegated to still images and written words. Websites carrying news and information have the capacity to convey and archive video of full trial proceedings. A growing trend by many communities to have all-news cable television stations that focus around the clock on local events also would permit extended coverage of trials – not just short news clips with sound bites.

The benefits of allowing such coverage are numerous and significant: it will bring transparency to the judicial system, provide increased accountability from litigants, judges, and the press and educate citizens about the judicial process. Audio-visual coverage will allow the public to ensure that proceedings are conducted fairly, and, by extension, that government systems are working correctly. We expect that the watchful eye of the public will demand increased accountability from all courtroom participants. Claims of sensationalistic or inaccurate reporting will be readily verifiable by a public able to view the underlying proceedings for itself.

“The day may come when television will have become so commonplace an affair in the Letter of the NPPA in Support of Cameras in the Courtroom daily life of the average person as to dissipate all reasonable likelihood that its use incourtrooms may disparage the judicial process.” Those words written 48 years ago by U.S.Supreme Court Justice John Harlan in Estes v. Texas (first case in 1965 considering cameras inthe courtroom) are now self-evident. Modern technology has transcended the difficulties that led to bans on such coverage. There are no more whirling, noisy cameras. There are no more glaring lights. Nor does a thundering herd of technicians have to go in and out of the courtroom to set up and tear down their gear. Modern equipment is inaudible, requires no additional lighting and can be operated by a limited number of trained professionals. The courtroom trial has been a fixture of justice and fairness throughout our state’s history. That tradition will be enhanced by permanently permitting still photography along with audio-visual coverage in New York State courtrooms.

There is no substantive rational or legal argument for precluding cameras from the courtroom. Their presence in the courtroom and the images that they convey provide a compelling public service without infringing upon the constitutional or statutory rights of any affected persons or institutions. Respect for the dignity, decorum and safety of the courthouse is not only maintained but enhanced by having cameras in the courtroom. Any proposed legislation should provide judges with all the judicial discretion necessary to allow cameras in the courtroom while safeguarding those rights and principles. Permitting cameras in the courtroom enhances public understanding of and confidence in, the judicial system without interfering with the fair administration of justice.

Justice Potter Stewart, dissenting in Estes wrote, “The idea of imposing upon any medium of communications the burden of justifying its presence is contrary to where I had always thought the presumption must lie in the area of First Amendment freedoms.” Our state legislature must be mindful of its power not to erect its own prejudices into law. Society can ill afford to let the arbitrary and speculative objections of some antagonistic to the electronic press infringe upon the public’s right to observe proceedings in our courts by lens-capping the very means by which modern society receives news and information.

Therefore, in order to ensure fairness in our justice system and restore New York as a leader in the fair trial – free press arena, we ask that you seek and support a bill permitting cameras in the courtroom subject to the discretion of the presiding judge.

Thank you.

Very truly yours,

Mickey H. Osterreicher

General Counsel

On behalf of:

ABC, Inc.
American Society of Media Photographers
American Society of News Editors
The Associated Press
Association of Alternative
Associated Press Media Editors
Cable News Network, Inc.
CBS Broadcasting Inc.
Daily News, LP
Deadline Club
Digital Media Law Project
The New York Press Club
Fox News Network LLC
Free Press
Gannett Co., Inc.
Hearst Corporation
LIN Television Corporation d/b/a WIVB/WNLO
Radio Television Digital News Association
Reporters Without Borders
Reuters America LLC
Society of Professional Journalists
National Association of Broadcasters
National Public Radio, Inc.
The National Press Club
NBCUniversal Media, LLC
New York News Publishers Association
New York State Broadcasters Association
The New York Times
News 12 Networks LLC
North Jersey Media Group Inc.
PACA Digital Media Licensing Association
Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press
Staten Island Advance
Syracuse Media Group

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