The Society of Professional Journalists is organizing a coalition to petition the Supreme Court to revisit its canon that prohibits cameras in the courtroom. The court is conducting a trial experiment now, having scheduled 17 of its hearings for broadcast coverage. Of those, about 75 percent have been covered. At a recent SPJ regional conference, Justice Frank Sullivan invited media groups to file another petition. The last attempt by a media coalition was in 1987. But Sullivan said there are three new members on the court and the coverage has been going well. Two other national groups have signed onto the petition in addition to the society; Radio- Television News Directors Association and National Press Photographers Association.
Congress moves to open courtrooms
Congressmen Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, and Charles Schumer, D-New York, announced the introduction of legislation that would give the public greater access to the federal courts. The bill would permit individual federal judges to allow television and radio coverage of federal court proceedings on a case-by-case basis. The legislation applies to all civil and criminal trials and appeals. Chabot's news release says, "As a member of the Cincinnati City Council, Chabot successfully sponsored bipartisan legislation to make council meetings more accessible to the public through cable television. He later brought the same reforms to the Hamilton County Commission." (check HR 1280 or contact Chabot's office for additional information at 202-225- 2216)
And even more on cameras ...
The Utah Supreme Court amended its policy restricting camera access to courts, allowing additional recording devices. Still photography is now allowed in trial courts with the consent of the presiding judge. Media must provide 24-hour notice, but on "good cause" the judge can waive the time requirement. Under the old rule, the media had to obtain the written consent of all parties and witnesses 24 hours before the event. (source: News Media Update, Vol. 3, No. 5)
Supreme Court ruling in Mailing List Case
The Oregon Natural Desert Association, a non-profit group interested in desert preservation issues, filed a FOIA request with the Bureau of Land Management seeking the mailing list for BLM News. The newsletter provides information about BLM's plans and activities. The Interior Department concluded that Exemption 6 of the FOIA protected names and addresses of private individuals on the mailing list, withholding that information. At the same time, it segregated and disclosed the names and addresses of organizations. The case was appealed to the Ninth Circuit. A divided panel found there was a "substantial public interest" and ruled 2-1 that this interest outweighed the invasion of personal privacy. The Supreme Court reversed. It ruled that the only relevant public interest is the "extent to which disclosure of the information sought would shed light on the agency's performance or statutory duties or otherwise let citizens know what their government is up to."
Source: FOIA Update, U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Information and Privacy (Oregon Natural Desert Assn. v. Bibles, 83 F .3d 1168 (9th Cir. 1996)
National Freedom of Information Coalition
Elizabeth Pritzker, attorney with the First Amendment Project in California, offered some sound advice to those attending the NFOIC conference in Oklahoma City. When legislation crops up that is intended to protect privacy, she said to ask policy makers these key questions;
What is the fear or threat to personal privacy the government is trying to protect?
Is there a real threat or is the articulated fear a real one?
Does the bill address it appropriately?
Is the public interest served?
In most instances, you will probably discover that proposed legislation does not meet this simple test.
In Florida, for example, legislation was passed allowing victims of certain crimes to register at the state attorney general's office and have personally-identifying information withheld for up to five years. The attorney general's office acts as a victim's address.
That's a better solution than shutting down all personal information kept by Departments of Motor Vehicles, a messy piece of federal law that states are attempting to address.
The Electronic Access Project
This paper report compiled by the National Newspaper Association and the American Court & Commercial Newspapers is available for $15. The massive report calls itself "introductory" and compiles a variety of public documents from several states and a round-up of state legislation (both passed and pending). NNA officials say the cost is necessary to cover copying and mailing. For more information, call 703-907-7900. The patchwork quilt of bills indicates that there should be some leadership in establishing a model law by media or interested citizen groups.