From AJR,   October 1995

Forget O.J.: Cameras Belong in Court   

Despite concerns about Simpson coverage, the pros of televising trials far outweigh the cons.

By Jane Kirtley
Jane Kirtley (kirtl001@tc.umn.edu) is the Silha Professor of Media Ethics and Law at the University of Minnesota's School of Journalism and Mass Communications.     

The resolution of the Susan Smith murder case in a mere three weeks has been touted as "a textbook trial." Newsweek, the New York Times and other news outlets were quick to point to the absence of cameras in the courtroom as the salient feature separating the proceeding in Union, South Carolina, from the O.J. Simpson murder trial in California that has dragged on for months.

Certainly Smith's pretrial confession to murdering her children was also significant. But for the sworn foes of cameras in the courts, the orderly disposition of the Smith case reduces to this: If you keep the cameras out, the result will be swift, efficient justice.

This was just one of the setbacks to cameras in the courts during the past summer. The court administration committee of the U.S. Judicial Conference chose to make no further recommendations on allowing cameras in federal court proceedings, effectively killing the issue. The Supreme Court in Mississippi, one of four jurisdictions still prohibiting cameras in their courts, ruled that excluding electronic devices doesn't unconstitutionally discriminate against the First Amendment rights of broadcasters.

Even Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.), a longtime supporter of cameras in courts, announced he had had enough. In a column decrying the public fixation on the "gory or intimate details" of the Simpson case, as compared to the neglect of more significant issues such as health care or Bosnia, Simon wrote that "the television camera in the courtroom has taught us about legal proceedings, but it has also caught a public and media weakness. Let us..do better in the future, without cameras in the courtroom."

Would we "do better" in a world without cameras in the courtroom? The arguments in favor of televising legal proceedings may sound hollow to many in the wake of O.J., but let's run through them once more.

A camera in the courtroom is the logical extension of the First Amendment right of the media, the public's surrogate, to attend a criminal trial. It provides a more accurate version of court proceedings than a third-person account can ever hope to do. A fixed, silent camera in the courtroom commits no excesses, but instead neutralizes inaccurate and sensational reports based on out-of-court interviews.

It doesn't intimidate witnesses or jurors, but helps keep them alert and mindful of their sacred mission. Nor does a camera cause flamboyant behavior on the part of lawyers, judges or witnesses. It simply records and exposes it to public scrutiny when it occurs.

But these arguments pale against the lurking feeling, shared by many of the press as well as the public, that somehow it's just not decent to be mesmerized by a sensational murder trial. Wouldn't it be better if the camera were switched off, for our own good?

It's an old idea that the government should "protect" the public from its own worst impulses. The congressional furor over the purported eruption of pornography on the Internet is a classic example of government trying to censor speech it considers unworthy, justifying its actions simply because the speech is conveyed via a new medium.

So too with cameras in court, unfairly labeled as the perpetrator, when the fault, if there is one, rests with reporting practices that are as old as journalism itself. It is always easier to condemn new forms of technology, less explicitly protected by the Constitution, than to grapple with the First Amendment issues raised by attempts to regulate the information conveyed by them.

Opponents of cameras know that they can do little to control press excesses outside the courtroom, so they seek to cut off the information at its source. They contend that the First Amendment right of access to trials is satisfied as long as the print press is allowed to attend. The pad, pen and printing press were the norm in 1792, and what was good enough then is good enough for us now.

Perhaps. But the drafters of the Bill of Rights could not have foreseen our vast and anonymous modern cities, which make it impractical for the public to attend criminal trials in person. Isn't it reasonable to assume that they would have welcomed a technological tool that enhances the ability of the citizen to be better informed about the working of government – even if that means that sometimes it will cater to the sensational and voyeuristic side of all of us?

Never doubt that cameras in the courts remains an issue of constitutional dimensions. As the chief justice in the Mississippi cameras case wryly noted, "The constitutional right of freedom of the press covers television reporters as well, and the serious question presented..is not going to go away." l