Cameras in the Courtroom

The issue of cameras in the courtroom has long been controversial. Supporters of filming court cases cite constitutional rights, while detractors bemoan the carnival-like atmosphere they create. Debates about allowing cameras in the courtroom have reached several state supreme courts and the U.S. Supreme Court.

Cameras first entered the courtroom in 1935, during the Lindbergh kidnapping trial. Bruno Richard Hauptmann was tried for kidnapping the baby of Charles Lindbergh, a well-known aviator. Against the court's instructions, cameramen set up a camera in the balcony, and showed film recordings in newsreel theaters during the course of the trial. Ultimately, the trial judge stopped all photographic equipment in the court during trial proceedings.

After the trial ended and Hauptmann was found guilty, the American Bar Association charged that the cameras had caused a media circus. It called for a ban on all broadcast coverage of court proceedings. The ABA's recommendation was not binding, so newscasters were free to ignore it. A few Western states, including Colorado, Oklahoma and Texas, began to broadcast court cases on television.

In 1965, the Supreme Court handled the question of the constitutionality of broadcasting trial proceedings. The Warren Court in Texas had determined that television broadcast infringed upon the fundamental right to a fair trial, in cases where the criminal defendant objected to the cameras. The right to a fair trial is upheld in the Constitution by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

In the Supreme Court case of Estes v. Texas, six opinions emerged. Three judges argued the Estes's opinion should be reversed. The other three disagreed, but on three separate accounts. Judge Clark wrote the opinions of the court. The court's arguments remain as speculative, and have not been translated into law. Yet they succinctly frame arguments for and against cameras in the courtroom.

Four main concerns emerged. First, being filmed for television appearances might affect the way the jurors act. Second, the quality of the testimony could be negatively affected by the presence of cameras. Third, the trial judge has additional responsibilities when cameras are present. Lastly, the Supreme Court worried that the defendant might behave differently in the presence of cameras. Despite the Supreme Court's hesitations, six states decided in 1978 to allow cameras in court , as long as they followed certain rules. Ten other states tested programs that would allow trials to be televised.

Courtroom cameras again came under examination in 1987, when Chandler v. Florida considered the constitutionality of recording trials. The trial of Chandler, where he was charged with conspiracy to commit burglary and grand larceny, was televised despite Chandler's objections. After their conviction, Chandler and the other defendants appealed, citing prejudice due to the presence of cameras. The Florida Supreme Court concluded that the due process clause did not bar electronic coverage of courtroom proceedings.

Subsequently, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed that Florida court's decision. It agreed that Chandler did not adequately demonstrate prejudice. Chandler's claim that the presence of the cameras impaired the jurors' ability to decide the case could not be proved.

Both times that the Supreme Court commented on cameras in the courtroom, it found that the Constitution neither prohibited nor condoned televised court proceedings. If the court could uphold the defendant's right to a fair trial, and no specific prejudice was demonstrated, cameras could remain present at trials. One aspect of the Constitution that supports cameras in the courtroom is the right to a public trial. Supporters say that a trial is a public event, and courtroom proceedings are public property. They are opposed to the idea that the judiciary is the sole government institution that can suppress or censor events that occur in proceedings within it. They assert that freedom of the press includes television as well as newspapers.

Over the years, three main ideas have developed in support of cameras in the courtroom. The first is that television inspires public confidence in the trial process. The next is that television can educate. Lastly, supporters cite empirical surveys that indicate the absence of negative effects of cameras on courtroom proceedings.

Detractors argue differently. They claim that the empirical surveys are not reliable, as they rely on self-reports instead of observed evidence. They further argue that cameras are distinct from the press. Unlike the written word, which requires reasoning, television has an emotional power and viewers can prejudice a trial with their feedback.

Cameras in the Courtroom: Selected full-text books and articles

Some Reflections on Cameras in the Appellate Courtroom By O'Scannlain, Diarmuid F Journal of Appellate Practice and Process, Vol. 9, No. 2, Fall 2007
Just a Matter of Time? Video Cameras at the United States Supreme Court and the State Supreme Courts By Brown, Robert L Journal of Appellate Practice and Process, Vol. 9, No. 1, Spring 2007
Free Press v. Fair Trial: Supreme Court Decisions since 1807 By Douglas S. Campbell Praeger Publishers, 1994
Librarian's tip: "Estes v. Texas" begins on p. 114 and "Chandler v. Florida" begins on p. 167
The O. J. Simpson Trials: Rhetoric, Media, and the Law By Janice Schuetz; Lin S. Lilley Southern Illinois University Press, 1999
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