Editorial: Don’t restrict cameras in court

Published 2:17 pm Sunday, March 25, 2018

The photos and videotape of a Le Sueur County man reading a victim impact statement to a judge about how his wife tried to have him killed was compelling journalism when The Free Press published them last year.

It also gave the public insights into how justice is delivered.

But if a bill proposed by a bipartisan group of Minnesota legislators becomes law, that man’s videotaped statement would not likely ever have seen the light of day.

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What’s wrong with this picture?

A bill (HF 3436) approved Wednesday by the House public safety committee calls for turning back the public access that has been gained by a Minnesota Supreme Court initiative and pilot program that was slowly and cautiously allowing media cameras in a very limited number of court proceedings.

The authors of the bill, Rep. Jim Knoblach, R-St. Cloud, and Rep. Debra Hilstrom, DFL-Brooklyn Center, argue cameras in the court discourage witnesses of crimes from coming forward and otherwise intimidate victims or others. They say courtrooms should be focused only on providing justice and the public’s right to know and see the complete picture of what goes on should be a secondary or nonexistent concern.

Rep. Jack Considine, DFL-Mankato, a member of the public safety committee, said he doesn’t object to cameras in the court if they are there for a good reason, but would oppose, for example, a reality TV show having cameras in court.

Several advocates for banning cameras testified that victims of domestic violence, for example, would be further traumatized by having cameras in courts. But these advocates and indeed some of the legislators themselves did not appear to understand that the current rules prohibit photographs of witnesses or jurors outright. Victims cannot be photographed unless they give their written permission. Cameras are not allowed in any case involving domestic violence.

The advocates and legislative proponents of banning cameras argue that, possibly, at some time in the future, the Supreme Court program might allow the photographing or filming of victims and witnesses. That’s highly unlikely given how the courts have already banned the practice and the judges have wide discretion to go even further in prohibiting photographing of anyone in their courtroom without giving many specific reasons.

The current rules further limit what court proceedings may be photographed. Those rules prohibit photographing any and all court proceedings except after a verdict has been rendered. And that limits cameras to sentencing hearings only, where victims give their statements to a judge as he or she contemplates what sentence the guilty should face.

The Free Press has participated in many court proceedings which it petitioned for camera access. It has been granted access in almost every case. These photographs added to the “truth narrative” of these stories. They showed a judge throwing up his hands when he knew the law restricted him from imposing a harsher sentence. These photos and videos revealed the level of remorse of those found guilty.

These were powerful images that allow the public to judge how justice was delivered in a public court of law funded by taxpayers. That taxpayers should be denied this information runs contrary to the rules of self-governance.

Knoblach argued if cameras are allowed in courts, victims of sex trafficking would forever have to see their testimony replayed on the Internet. Again, nothing could be further from the truth. The rules don’t allow victims to be photographed or filmed. It’s prohibited.

It’s troubling that Knoblach continues to give credence to these false premises when they are so far removed from reality.

We believe photographs, as they say, are worth a thousand words and create a more complete picture of a different kind of truth that comes once a verdict has been rendered.

Any attempt to deny citizens a method for evaluating how their government works is a strike against self-governance and should be fought with vigor.

— Mankato Free Press, March 22

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