Now here’s an interesting First Amendment dilemma. Judges in most states have broad discretion in whether to allow television cameras or audio recorders into their courtrooms. May the government also ban news organizations from broadcasting the official audio record of a criminal proceeding?
Under Maryland state law, the answer is yes: “The Maryland Code forbids anyone, including the media, from broadcasting official court recordings of state criminal court proceedings that were lawfully obtained from the court itself,” reported in The Baltimore Sun.
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But now that law is tottering on the brink of being declared unconstitutional. As Oxenden and Michael Kunzelman of The Associated Press reported last week, a U.S. district court judge has ruled that NPR may use official audio as part of its podcast “Embedded.” An upcoming episode will focus on the trial of Jarrod Ramos, who killed five people at The Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland, in 2018. Ramos was found criminally responsible earlier this year. The current proceedings involve his sentencing.
Judge Richard Barrett’s ruling pertains only to NPR’s request. But a challenge to the constitutionality of the law itself is under way as well.
In defending the law, the office of Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh disingenuously wrote that the ban, intended to maintain the “fairness and integrity” of criminal cases, does not infringe on freedom of the press because news organizations are free to use transcripts of the recordings in any way they like:
The statute does not prohibit any person from describing, transcribing, or reenacting any portion of a criminal trial. It bans only methods of communication that depict participants’ images and voices from inside the courtroom.
Bennett was having nothing of it. As the AP noted, Bennett rejected that argument in an earlier ruling, writing that the law “constitutes a prior restraint on speech that is irreparable as a matter of law.”
With the Maryland law seemingly well on the way to being overturned, it’s time to re-examine why television and radio journalists are usually banned from using the tools of their jobs when covering criminal cases. The excuse is generally the same as that advanced by Frosh — that they can attend and take notes like everyone else. But the First Amendment should guarantee that they can report from the courtroom just as they do from any other location: with video and audio so the public can see and hear how justice is being administered.