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Groundbreaking Bill Supporting Cameras in Federal Courts Takes First Critical Step


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Al Cross, SPJ President, 502/648-8433 or across@spj.org
Ian Marquand, SPJ Freedom of Information Committee co-chairman, (406) 542-4449 or ian@kpax.com

INDIANAPOLIS - The Society of Professional Journalists is cheering the Senate Judiciary Committee’s approval of a bill authorizing federal judges to allow cameras and other electronic recording devices in their courtrooms.

The Society said, however, that this groundbreaking legislation - S-986 - has taken only its first critical step and deserves Congress’ full and fair consideration.

SPJ has long been a supporter of allowing photographic, sound and video recording devices into all American courtrooms. At present, all 50 states allow at least some state or local court proceedings to be
recorded. However, cameras remain prohibited at all levels of the federal court system by order of the U.S. Supreme Court.

“It’s high time for the federal courts to be as accessible as the state courts are,” said SPJ President Al Cross, political writer and columnist for The Courier-Journal in Louisville. “There’s no reason why the federal courts should have any differently in this regard.”

S-986 would grant presiding judges in U.S. District and Appeals courts the authority to allow judges to permit photographing, electronic recording, broadcasting or televising proceedings in their courtrooms for a three-year period. The bill would not require that cameras be allowed but would leave the decision in each individual judge’s hands. The bill says that presiding judges in these courts would, upon the request of the witness, be permitted to order the witness’ face and voice either disguised or obscured.

The legislation also would authorize the court system’s policy-making body, the Judicial Conference of the United States, made of federal judges, to create guidelines that judges would use to make their decisions.

The bill has bipartisan support. It was introduced in June by Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and co-sponsored by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and several others. S-986 received a favorable report Nov. 29 from the Senate Judiciary Committee during an executive session. The committee made no amendments to the bill, which means it will travel next to the Senate floor for consideration.

“This is an important milestone, but there's still a lot to be done before we can start celebrating,” said Ian Marquand, SPJ Freedom of Information Committee co-chairman and special projects coordinator for the Montana Television Network. “The fact that the Senate Judiciary Committee has approved this must be counted as a victory. But those of us who support cameras in federal courts must expect challenges on the Senate floor, in the House and perhaps, ultimately, at the President’s desk. Our work is not done yet.”

Marquand and Cross urged SPJ members and other FOI advocates to voice support for this bill. Advocates should call their senators and congressional representatives to support the bill.

Marquand also had praise for Senators Grassley and Schumer in particular as advocates for electronic recording of federal court proceedings. In October, SPJ honored both Senators with a national “Sunshine Award” for their work in convincing the U.S. Supreme Court to release audio tapes of arguments over disputed Florida ballots in the 2000 presidential election.

“Any concerns about lawyers or judges playing to the cameras have been disproved by the experience of the state courts,” Cross said, “and tremendously outweighed by the value of making the courts accessible, which engenders confidence in the court system.”

The Society of Professional Journalists works to improve and protect journalism. The organization is the nation’s largest and most broad-based journalism organization, dedicated to encouraging the free practice of journalism and stimulating high standards of ethical behavior. Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed citizenry; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press.


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