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July 15, 2011

Cameras in the courtroom

OTTUMWA — Lights, camera, action! These are words more commonly heard on a movie set than in a courtroom. Yet Iowa’s state court proceedings may be broadcast to the public if certain rules for “expanded media coverage” are followed.

Say you are a television reporter and you hear that a controversial trial is underway at the local courthouse. You know the public will find this one interesting and you head to the courthouse, camera equipment in tow. Will your dreams of a big boost in tonight’s ratings come true? Maybe, maybe not, depending on whether you did your homework.

All requests to use media equipment in a courtroom must be made through a “media coordinator” who organizes the various TV, radio, newspaper, and social-media interests. Under rules adopted by the Iowa Supreme Court, applications for expanded coverage (news gathering that involves photography, video, or audio recording) must be made at least 14 days before the trial, allowing time for notice to all parties, opportunity for objections, and a hearing.

The public has a right to know what happens in public courtrooms, so why would a judge ever disallow expanded media coverage? Parties have the right to a fair trial, unimpeded by distractions of people moving about, or from use of equipment. Some crime victims have privacy rights recognized in the rules, such as victims of sexual assault or other violent crimes. For good cause, individual witnesses may be protected from media exposure, such as an undercover drug officer whose identity is confidential in the community.

By law, some court proceedings are conducted in private, such as those involving juveniles, adoptions, divorces, child-custody disputes, and trade secrets. There are protections in place, also, that limit photographic or video coverage of jurors.

As is so often the case in trial procedures, the presiding judge must carefully assess the unique situation presented, acknowledge and balance the competing interests, and make a decision that is fair to all, under applicable law.

Judge Gamon presides over district court cases in the 8-A Judicial District, and is a proponent of transparency in court proceedings to assist in public awareness and understanding. She may be reached at lucy.gamon@iowacourts.gov.

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