Media hope cameras-in-court test can expand

Published 4:27 pm Tuesday, March 22, 2011

MINNEAPOLIS — News cameras remain all but banned in Minnesota criminal proceedings after the state Supreme Court recently turned back a push by media organizations for greater access, but the high court opened the door a crack by agreeing to allow cameras into civil cases for a two-year test starting July 1.

The Supreme Court was responding to a petition by several Minnesota news organizations to loosen the state’s restrictions on video cameras, still cameras and audio recording in district courts. The high court kept in place the state’s longstanding restrictions for criminal cases, which require the judge and all sides in a case to agree to electronic coverage. As a practical matter, that hardly ever happens.

News organizations are hoping a tryout in civil courts will let the media prove that their recording devices won’t be a problem at criminal trials, which are often of much higher interest to their readers and viewers.

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“I hope we the media can build some trust in a judiciary that has some serious concerns about cameras and recording devices,” said Tom Lindner, news director at KARE-TV in Minneapolis. “We really are quite good at doing this and not interfering with people’s rights. We’d like to be able to show that.”

Media groups first petitioned for expanded camera access in 2007. The Supreme Court directed an advisory committee to draft rules for a pilot project, and last fall the committee presented two options: a large academic study that would have cost at least $750,000, or a smaller study based on informal surveys

Earlier this month, the court rejected both options as too burdensome on judges who would have had to be involved in the surveys. But the justices agreed to try cameras in certain civil cases when the judge consents. Still barred are child custody, divorce, juvenile, child protection and paternity proceedings, and petitions for orders for protection. Video and audio coverage of witnesses who object to being recorded, and of jurors, also remain off-limits.

Minnesota’s appellate courts have long allowed video and audio coverage of their own proceedings, but they hear legal arguments from attorneys, not witness testimony. One of the very few cases in which cameras have been allowed in a Minnesota trial was Norm Coleman’s lawsuit challenging his recount loss to Al Franken in the 2008 U.S. Senate race. The pilot project will operate under similar rules to ensure that the cameras and photographers are unobtrusive, including pool coverage.

Jane Kirtley, a University of Minnesota professor who specializes in media law, said it will be crucial for news organizations to find civil cases worth covering or they risk losing their new freedom. After two years, the advisory committee will report on how the pilot project went, and it will then be up to the state Supreme Court to decide if it should continue.

“It’s an experiment, but to have a successful experiment you’ve got to light the Bunsen burner and try some things. If none of that happens it’s not going to be much of a pilot,” Kirtley said.

Cameras and recording devices remain banned in federal courts nationwide. About three dozen states routinely allow camera coverage. Lindner and Kirtley pointed out that most of Minnesota’s neighbors allow camera coverage and have had few, if any, problems with it.

“I continue to await the day when we can be like Wisconsin, which has decades of experience of opening up their courtrooms to cameras in civil and criminal matters. And the result has been sensitive but thoughtful and informative coverage,” Lindner said. “Even sensational cases that have happened in Wisconsin were handled, I think, properly and were not sensationalized. I think viewers in Wisconsin have a better understanding of how effective and good their judiciary is because of cameras in the courts.”