April 21, 2021

The rules about cameras and other recording devices in courtrooms vary from state to state. Minnesota isn’t usually friendly to them.

In fact, as The Star Tribune editorial board recently wrote, “Until now, Minnesota has been known for its restrictive cameras-in-the-courtroom policies and only allowed audio and video recordings after a guilty plea or a guilty verdict.”

COVID-19 protocols, among other things, resulted in the Derek Chauvin trial being streamed live, renewing conversation about cameras in the courtroom.

Bloomberg Law reported on how this decision was made:

A bit of context: Audio-visual coverage is not presumptively allowed in Minnesota courtrooms during the guilt/innocence phase of criminal trials. Rather, under Minnesota’s court rules, all parties must consent. So although Chauvin consented to cameras, when the state filed notice that it did not consent, that would have been the last word under ordinary circumstances.

But in a surprising move, the court ordered that, given the pandemic, the only way to comply with the First and Sixth Amendments was to allow the trial to be “recorded, broadcast and livestreamed in audio and video.”

In a subsequent order, the court specified that the only spectators allowed inside the courtroom would be two media representatives, one technician from Court TV (to provide the live audio and video feed), one member of the Floyd family, and one member of the Chauvin family.

With some rare exceptions, federal courts do not allow live camera coverage. Half of all states have some limitation or ban on cameras in courtrooms. In the Chauvin trial, cameras remained static, not zooming in or out on anyone in the courtroom. They were not allowed to show the family of George Floyd.

The Columbia Journalism Review recently summed up the pros and cons: “Advocates of (allowing cameras in courtrooms) tend to argue that broadcasting court proceedings facilitates scrutiny of the legal system, and basic transparency. Courts generally allow members of the public to attend; in the digital age, what’s the justification for keeping physical limits on access? Opponents often argue that live TV coverage disadvantages defendants, and changes the dynamics of trials in undesirable ways — like encouraging lawyers to play to the court of public opinion, rather than the actual court — without fixing the many flaws of the justice system.”

Jane Kirtley, a professor of media ethics and law at the journalism school at the University of Minnesota, said she was glad to see the trial in her hometown streamed live.

“I am hopeful that the very smooth experience with cameras — only a few glitches — will encourage those opponents who are members of the bench and bar to rethink their objections,” Kirtley wrote in an email to Poynter on Tuesday. “None of the dire consequences they were concerned about happened, and the trial itself seemed to me unaffected.”

The ban on electronic media in courtrooms is generally traced to the 1932 kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh’s baby, which attracted hundreds of journalists and photographers and created a logistical nightmare for the court. That led to cameras and other electronic media being banned in most states. But some courtroom limitations predate even that. Bloomberg Law summarized:

As an appellate court of appeals held in 1917, allowing only 25 members of the public to attend a trial when the courtroom could hold 100 people constituted a reversible error. Similarly, perhaps it is not reasonable to allow only 100 people — or even 500 people — to observe the administration of justice when we can reasonably allow anyone with a television, internet connection, or data plan to do so.

As we wrote in 2002, “In 1981, when cameras got quieter and needed no extra lights, the high court ruled that just having a camera in a courtroom is not, in itself, unconstitutional. That decision opened the way for cameras-in-the-courts experiments across the country.”

And make no mistake, people will watch. 300,000 people watched The Star Tribune’s live feed during the jury selection, arguably the driest part of the proceeding.

Kirtley said she hopes that this trial proved such experiments work.

“The good news was that the public had a wide variety of platforms through which to view the trial, at their convenience,” she said. “It’s the essence of open justice, and will, I hope, reassure the public that justice was done.”

Versions of this piece appeared in today’s editions of The Poynter Report and Covering COVID-19.

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Barbara Allen is the director of college programming for Poynter. Prior to that, she served as managing editor of Poynter.org. She spent two decades in…
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