Placing cameras in the courtroom has stirred controversy for decades. It’s only natural and logical that journalists and their media organizations, in their roles as representatives of the public, want to take photographs and broadcast video from courtrooms, especially in trials and hearings of high public interest.
Although an increasing number of courts are open to cameras, it remains unclear if constitutional provisions that require open courts, which are explicit in some state constitutions, specifically mean that courts must allow photography and video unless a compelling and constitutional reason weighs against it. In some states, the opposite is true. While cameras may be allowed, the courts are presumed closed to cameras unless a judge grants permission for photography, broadcasting, streaming or recording of any kind. The judge may have wide latitude to rule in either direction.
There’s a natural tension between constitutional rights when there is a dispute.
Opponents and proponents of cameras in courtrooms have invoked First Amendment provisions regarding freedom of the press to access court proceedings, the public’s right to public information, the Sixth Amendment’s rights to a fair and public trial, and the 14th Amendment’s due process protection.
Proponents say that broadcasts educate the public and allow them to see how justice is (or perhaps is not) carried out. They claim that under the watchful eyes of thousands of viewers, the judge, attorneys, and jurors are more likely to pay careful attention to the facts of a case and be on their best behavior, helping to ensure fairer trials.
For every advocate stressing the importance of accountability and public understanding that can be gained by photography and video of court proceedings, foes worry that the presence of cameras can change the character and behavior of participants in a trial or hearing, to the detriment of other constitutional rights and the quest for justice.
Today, many state courts allow photography or broadcasts from their courtrooms, with varying procedural requirements. Federal courts, however, have remained more resistant with only pilot programs allowing cameras in civil cases, but not criminal cases.
The U.S. Supreme Court has rejected calls to allow cameras during its proceedings, although it now broadcasts live audio of the oral arguments.
Concern about cameras in courtrooms stems in part from past so-called “media circuses” around some high-profile trials.
Lindbergh baby kidnapping trial spurred camera bans
Significant efforts to limit cameras in courtrooms began after the 1935 trial of the man convicted of kidnapping and killing aviator Charles Lindbergh’s baby son.
About 700 members of the media, including 120 cameramen, attended the trial, in which Bruno Hauptmann was convicted. Messenger boys ran about, and unruly photographers climbed on witness tables to get shots, blinding witnesses with their flash bulbs.
After Bruno Hauptmann was convicted, he appealed to the New Jersey Court of Appeals claiming that the presence of courtroom cameras and media activity in the courtroom, among other claims, denied him a fair trial.
The appeals court rejected Hauptmann’s claim in State v. Hauptmann. However, concern about the media behavior during the trial caused the American Bar Association in 1937 to amend Canon 35 of its Canons of Judicial Ethics to forbid photographic, television and other broadcast coverage of trials.
Supreme Court overturns convictions because of camera coverage
In the 1960s, Texas ignored Canon 35 and gave presiding judges in the state broad discretion in allowing cameras in the courtroom, eventually leading to a case in which the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a criminal conviction based on press coverage.
The landmark case, Estes v. Texas (1965), served for almost 20 years as the basis for denying the press access to bring cameras into the courtroom.
In that case, the trial judge had permitted television and photographic coverage of the pretrial and trial proceedings of financier Billie Sol Estes who was accused of massive swindling.
The Supreme Court overturned Estes’s conviction on the ground that the camera coverage so distracted trial participants as to deprive him of a fair trial.
The following year, in Sheppard v. Maxwell (1966), the Supreme Court ordered a retrial of Dr. Samuel H. Sheppard, whose trial for the murder of his wife was also marred by extensive media coverage.
Supreme Court says in 1981 that total ban on broadcasting trials not justified
In the late 1970s, Florida began a pilot program in which broadcast media were allowed to covered judicial proceedings in all of its state courts without the consent of trial participants. Broadcasters had argued that cameras had become smaller and they no longer needed obtrusive bright lights or cables.
One of the Florida trials in which cameras were allowed was that of Noel Chandler and Robert Granger, Miami Beach police officers accused of robbing a local restaurant. Both defendants objected to the presence of cameras, but the trial judge permitted them.
Both officers were convicted, and they appealed, claiming that the presence of cameras affected the ability of jurors to decide the case fairly. They sought to have Florida’s program declared unconstitutional.
The case went to the Supreme Court.
In Chandler v. Florida (1981), the court ruled that the Constitution does not prevent states from allowing broadcast coverage of criminal trials. The danger that jurors might be affected by the presence of cameras in a given case was not enough to justify an outright ban on broadcast coverage, the ruling said.
The Chandler ruling, while not requiring states to admit cameras into their courtrooms, went a long way toward putting to rest the fears expressed in Estes respecting the influence of cameras on the fairness of trials.
Renewed debate about cameras in courtroom follows O.J. Simpson trial
Renewed debate on cameras in the courtroom emerged after cable network Court TV’s gavel-to-gavel coverage of the trial of former football star O.J. Simpson — for the 1994 murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and one of her acquaintances, Ron Goldman — and the controversy surrounding the not-guilty jury verdict.
That trial has often been viewed as a major setback for courtroom camera proponents because of the perception that the media environment had too much negative impact on the case, which happened about four years after Court TV debuted as an outlet devoted to court proceedings.
Critics note that some witnesses fidget nervously before cameras, possibly harming their credibility with jurors. Opponents also argue that the broadcasting of trials leads lawyers to grandstand for the camera, diminishing courtroom decorum.
In high-profile cases in recent years, judges have asserted a desire to avoid a media feeding frenzy and banned television cameras from their courtrooms, including these cases:
- Timothy McVeigh, on the charge of bombing the Federal Building in Oklahoma City;
- Susan Smith, for the murder of her children;
- Richard Allen Davis, for the murder of Polly Klass; and
- Scott Peterson, for the murder of his wife, Laci Peterson.
Supporters say cameras allow public to see how justice is carried out
Today, with the explosion of digital outlets and cable television channels such as Court TV, the broadcast of complete court proceedings is more common, particularly in the most newsworthy cases.
Broadcasters say that today’s technology is no longer disruptive and that the courts as well as the general public benefit from broadcasts of court proceedings. Digital still cameras can be silenced without the “click” noise of film cameras. However, many courts make a distinction between professional cameras approved for use by news photographers while banning the use of cellphone cameras, as well as cellphone recording.
In perhaps the highest profile murder trial of recent years, which resulted in the murder conviction of South Carolina lawyer Alex Murdaugh in 2023, the live broadcasting of the trial created little controversy in terms of Murdaugh’s rights to a fair trial, the privacy of jurors and the performance of the judge and attorneys. Still, some dissenters felt the trial became too much of a spectacle.
Media organizations provide state-by-state rules on cameras
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press offers an online database that describes current state and federal camera rules along with much other information on court procedures. The Radio Television Digital News Association also maintains a database of camera and broadcasting/streaming rules, updated most recently in 2022. State bar associations, state press and broadcast associations and state freedom of information groups also can be sources of specific information.
Provisions for live broadcasting, recording or streaming, provisions can have many nuances. Some states offer relatively easy access to proceedings while others have rules so restrictive that cameras only are allowed in rare cases or not at all, especially regarding criminal cases in lower courts. Delaware, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Pennsylvania are among the most restrictive.
Where cameras are allowed, officials must address numerous procedural and policy questions and the answers vary state by state. For example:
- Will live broadcasting be allowed?
- Do all parties have to give consent?
- Is photography or video allowed of jurors and underage witnesses? What about juvenile hearings, probate hearings and other less common proceedings?
- How many cameras will be allowed in the courtroom at once? If there is a limit or a designated “pool” professional, how do the courts select the photographer and/or videographer?
- What are the circumstances in which a judge may determine that cameras won’t be allowed? What are the appeal rights when cameras are denied?
- Will appellate proceedings in which lawyers are arguing case merits before judicial panels be open to cameras?
- Are the courts operating their own cameras or feeds but not allowing outside cameras? Some state courts, particularly at the appellate levels, operate their own cameras for live and/or archive use. For example, you can watch live and archived video of oral arguments before the Ohio Supreme Court on a site maintained by the court.
Federal courts remain resistant to cameras
While many state courts allow cameras in courtrooms, subject to certain rules, federal courts under the direction of the U.S. Judicial Conference, have remained far more resistant with only experimental, pilot programs allowed in civil, not criminal, cases.
As of April 2023, a pilot program allowing cameras in certain federal civil cases was continuing in Northern California. However, past pilot programs involving civil cases in U.S. district courts have never resulted in recommendations to open more courts to cameras.
The U.S. Supreme Court made a major change in 2010 when Chief Justice John Roberts began releasing audio recordings of court proceedings on the same day as the proceeding. The court had been recording oral arguments since 1955, maintaining the recordings at The National Archives and Records Administration, and making them available to the public at the beginning of the next term.
Then, during the COVID pandemic, Roberts began a practice of broadcasting audio of arguments in real-time, a practice that continues today.
At the nation’s highest court, U.S. Supreme Court Justices including Elena Kagan and Samuel Alito have expressed concerns that televised arguments would cause lawyers to perform for the cameras more than the courts, or that the justices might censor themselves. Clarence Thomas has raised security and privacy concerns.
Bill proposes Supreme Court televise hearings
Attempts have been made to liberalize the federal courts’ camera rules. Starting in 1997, various members of Congress introduced “sunshine in the courtroom” acts to give presiding judges in federal courts the discretion to permit camera coverage.
In March 2023, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators again introduced a bill that would open proceedings of the United States Supreme Court to cameras and live broadcasts. Courthouse News Service reported.
“The Cameras in the Courtroom Act” is a two-sentence change in the law that would require the Supreme Court to televise its hearings unless the justices voted that televising would put due process rights of a party before them at risk.
“Rulings made by Justices in our nation’s highest court impact the lives of every American, regardless of zip code,” Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., said in a statement. “We see an ever-apparent interest for the American people to be able to witness the highest court’s proceedings.”
“Allowing cameras access to the Supreme Court would be a victory for transparency and would help the American people grow in confidence and understanding of the judiciary,” Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said in his statement.
The prospects for approval did not appear likely as the same bill passed the Senate Judiciary Committee on a bipartisan 15-7 vote in the previous session of Congress but stopped there.
This article was originally published in 2009 and written by Ruth Ann Strickland. It was updated and expanded in March 2023 by Dennis Hetzel, an author and former newspaper reporter, editor and publisher who also served as executive director of the Ohio News Media Association and president of the Ohio Coalition for Open Government.