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Cameras in the Courtroom?

The Indiana Court of Appeals upheld a trial court’s decision prohibiting a Fort Wayne television station from broadcasting the trial court’s audio recording of a criminal sentencing hearing. This decision addresses a topic that has been a subject of national debate—cameras in the courtroom. Because this case touches on such a hotly debated topic, it is worth pointing out that some of the Court of Appeals’ reasoning does not stand up to scrutiny. While the Court of Appeals’ concerns about publicizing trial court proceedings may provide a sufficient reason to prohibit the broadcast, the practice of many courts undermines the Court of Appeals’ conclusion that there is no difference between allowing WPTA-TV to record the proceedings and allowing WPTA-TV to make a court’s recording publicly available.

In WPTA-TV v. State and Mathew, 35A02-1705-CR-1060, the Indiana Court of Appeals addressed Appellant-Intervenor WPTA-TV’s argument seeking the right to broadcast the trial court’s audio recording of John C. Mathew’s sentencing hearing. Mathew was a physician who pleaded guilty to two counts of sexual battery in the Huntington Circuit Court. WPTA-TV submitted a public records request for the trial court’s audio recording of the hearing. The trial court granted WPTA-TV’s public records request for the recording, but prohibited WPTA-TV from broadcasting it, citing Judicial Conduct Rule 2.17. This Rule states, “Except with prior approval of the Indiana Supreme Court, a judge shall prohibit broadcasting, televising, recording, or taking photographs in the courtroom.” The trial court determined that “Broadcasting all or parts of a court record is no different than [WPTA-TV] making their own recording and then broadcasting it . . . an act that is not allowed by the Rule.”

The Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed this ruling. It stated, “Permitting the audio of a proceeding to be broadcast to the public in general by way of any type of media, would have an intimidating impact, not only on the behavior of the witnesses and other actors—causing possible fear and reluctance to testify—but also on the openness and candidness of any trial testimony.” The Court of Appeals then added that it “perceive[d] no difference between the effect of broadcasting a hearing ex post facto versus the contemporaneous dissemination of the proceeding.”

The Court of Appeals takes a misstep here by stating that there is no difference between having cameras live in the courtroom and disseminating an audio recording after-the-fact. Many appellate courts prohibit members of the public from recording proceedings, but then make their own recordings of the proceeding easily accessible online—including the United States Supreme Court and the Indiana Court of Appeals itself. These courts must have concluded that there is a difference between, on the one hand, allowing the media or public to bring cameras into the courtroom and, on the other, making the court’s own recordings public after the fact.

One might argue that it is different for a court, rather than the media, to disseminate the recording. But given that the media or any member of the public can easily access and share a court’s recordings once the court puts the recordings online, this argument is weak.

This is not to say that the Court of Appeals’ recent decision is necessarily wrong from a public policy standpoint. The Court of Appeals’ concerns about publicizing in-court proceedings may be valid, particularly as applied to trial court proceedings, which involve testimony by lay witnesses who must sometimes discuss traumatic or embarrassing details of their lives. Indeed, if there is a principled justification for prohibiting the media from broadcasting a criminal sentencing hearing while allowing the Court of Appeals to make recordings of its own proceedings available online, it is the difference between trial and appellate proceedings. Still, even if the Court of Appeals reached the right decision, the opinion should recognize the distinction that many courts’ policies recognize—allowing the media and public to bring cameras to live in-court proceedings is not identical to disseminating the court’s own recordings after proceedings conclude. 

The author F. Italia Patti focuses her practice in the areas of: Appellate Law and Litigation Services.

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