Cameras in the Courtroom

The phrase ‘‘cameras in the courtroom’’ refers to the presence of news media cameras, both still and television cameras, inside courtrooms recording trial proceedings for the public. Since the early days of the American courts, members of the news media have been present in courtrooms, documenting proceedings for their audience. Before the arrival of cameras, reporters relied on pen and paper and courtroom sketch artists to relay details of trial proceedings to the public. In the television age, the simple installation of a small video camera in an unobtrusive location in a courtroom has allowed a much larger public to view the activities inside a courtroom. Trials are no longer accessible to only those who can fit into oftencramped courtrooms, but thousands, if not millions, turn on a television set to watch a trial. The most famous case in which cameras in the courtroom played a pivotal role was the murder trial of football star O. J. Simpson. Yet the overwhelming presence of the news media and the day-to-day coverage of the trial created a circus-like atmosphere and raised concerns over whether cameras should be permitted to record trial proceedings.

At the heart of the debate over cameras in the courtroom are the two constitutionally guaranteed rights: a defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial and the news media’s First Amendment right of a free press. Those opposed to allowing news media cameras inside courtrooms argue that cameras would cause lawyers to overdramatize their arguments, scare away potential witnesses, and disrupt the solemn conduct of a trial, all of which could be detrimental to the defendant. Proponents of cameras in the courtroom argue that the public should have direct access to how the American judicial system really works. Television, proponents claim, is the best tool for allowing the public into the often shadowy world of the courts without having to attend a trial or having to sit on a jury.

Two cases directly addressing the constitutionality of allowing news media cameras inside courtrooms were brought to the U. S. Supreme Court. The case of Estes v. Texas (1964) involved the swindling conviction of Texas businessman Billy Sol Estes. Estes appealed his conviction on the grounds that the presence of the news media cameras infringed on his right to a fair trial. The Court ruled that the defendant’s right to a public trial did not mean that the news media had a right to bring in their cameras to record the trial. The Court’s decision in Estes was amended in the case of Chandler v. Florida (1981). The Court examined Florida’s rules regarding cameras in the courtroom and concluded that there was not enough evidence to prove that the presence of news media cameras violated the due process of the defendants.

Currently, cameras are not permitted in federal courtrooms, although there have been attempts by the news media to gain access. State courts, however, are more receptive to the idea of cameras in the courtroom, although judges are very cautious in what they will allow the news media to cover.

STEPHANIE HSZIEH

References and Further Reading

  • Freedman, Warren. Press and Media Access to the Criminal Courtroom. New York: Quorum Books, 1988. 

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Estes v. Texas, 381 U.S. 532 (1964) 
  • Chandler et al v. Florida 449 U.S. 560 (1981) 

See also Estes, Billy Sol; Free Press/Fair Trial

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