First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America

First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Cameras in courtrooms, like in Zimmerman's trial, should be the norm

The trials of George Zimmerman, Casey Anthony and Ted Bundy, as well as the 2000 election saga ... what do they all have in common?  They were televised in the Florida state courts.  Whatever you think of the outcomes in those matters, the Sunshine State, true to its name, leads the way in shedding light on its judicial proceedings.

More than once, I have worked to convince a judge that having cameras in the courtroom is a good thing.  "But it will disturb the decorum of the courtroom."  No, cameras now are unobtrusive and silent, and often media companies will pool resources to use just one camera.  "It will turn the courtroom into a circus."  No, your honor, I'm sure you won't let that happen.  "It will make the witnesses feel uncomfortable."  Studies show that witnesses forget the cameras are there after a few minutes.  "It will make the lawyers grandstand."  That will or won't happen either way, and your honor can keep that in check.

The basic point:  the First Amendment gives a right for the public to attend trials in person, so why not extend that right to a broader audience via cameras?  Florida takes this approach, and attracts a lot of attention for its cases.

And, we watch right?  So many folks want to see what happens next.  As they do, the public learns about our justice system from watching, and also from listening to pundits who have actually seen the proceedings.

In California, there is a 19 factor test a state court judge must consider before a camera comes into the courtroom.  Yes, you read that right ... 19 factors.

In federal court, aside from a handful of pilot programs, judges have even less discretion.  Judge Vaughn Walker wanted to televise the Prop. 8 trial, but the US Supreme Court stopped him.  So much for giving judges control over their own courtrooms.

Meanwhile, C-SPAN reports that a majority of the Supreme Court refuses to allow cameras in the Supreme Court itself. 

Get over it.  Cameras in the courtroom inform and educate.  They teach us about the triumphs and failings in our justice system.  They are consistent with a free press and a free society.

Further reading:  For an excellent and scholarly look at cameras in the court, read this article by Mickey Osterreicher of the National Press Photographers Association.


  1. So, because you have convinced a judge in specific cases that the decorum will not be disturbed you feel that this is the situation for EVERY case out there?

    Are the 19 factors addressed in the California test there for no purpose whatsoever?

    Do you think that a victim willing to testify about a rape wants that testimony to go viral on YouTube?

    You say that the camera itself doesn't make witnesses uncomfortable (that they forget it is there). How about the sense of being uncomfortable knowing that your testimony is being seen by millions of people some of whom might wish to retaliate based on what you've said. [Example: A celebrity is accused of something and you are the key witness that places them at the scene. So some lunatic fan who has seen this footage over and over again because it was televised, now decides to go after you. Something that was unlikely to happen in a normal non-televised setting]

    Would knowing that your testimony is going to be seen by the masses affect how and what you testify to? People are used to reality shows these days and everyone gets their chance to be a star. Should a courtroom proceeding be someone's opportunity?

    Maybe the witness will dress differently because of the cameras. Perhaps they will feel the need to do hair and makeup for the camera. Perhaps they will feel the need to be a more important player in the story than they really are.

    Cameras are a wildcard factor, not a great equalizer.

    -Devil's Advocate

  2. As the title of the post reveals, I think cameras in courtrooms should be the norm. There could be exceptions or limitations in certain circumstances, but those would have to be compelling.

    And why not televise the Supreme Court? There are no witnesses -- only justices and lawyers. Think how much people would learn from broadcasting arguments, particularly in cases that impact the lives of every American.