Federal judge allows live coverage of race discrimination trial

Citing the importance of allowing the public to get maximum information about a case alleging racial discrimination in Champaign, Illinois, a federal district judge has allowed television, still camera, and audio coverage in the courtroom. -DB

September 30, 2009
By Eric P. Robinson

Watch The News-Gazette’s video of the recent hearing on the final consent decree in a federal lawsuit that alleged racial discrimination in the public schools of Champaign, Illinois, and you’ll see something unique — the video itself.

As I’ve written before, while most states allow some form of still and video camera coverage of court proceedings, the federal courts have generally been hostile to such coverage. A federal court rule bars camera coverage of criminal cases, see Fed. R. Crim Pro. 53, and, at the urging of the Federal Judicial Conference, most of the United States Circuit Courts of Appeals have passed rules that all but prohibit district courts under their supervision from allowing cameras to cover proceedings in civil cases. Earlier this year, this policy led the First Circuit to reverse a lower court’s decision to allow webcasting of the trial of a Boston University student sued for music downloading.

The exceptions are the Second and Ninth Circuits, where some district courts have allowed such coverage.

But the Champaign public schools case was heard in a federal district court in the Central District of Illinois, within the Seventh Circuit. This Circuit prohibits photography and broadcasting from the Court of Appeals facility, see Cir. Rule 55, and in 1985 upheld the constitutionality of Fed. R. Crim. Pro. 53, the federal rule prohibiting camera coverage of criminal cases. See U.S. v. Kerley, 753 F.2d 617 (7th Cir. 1985).

In the Central District of Illinois, the local court rules generally bar cameras and other recording devices from the entire courthouse, except with specific permission for hallway interviews in a specific location:

No electronic devices will be permitted into the courthouse subject to the exceptions below. …

News media representatives wishing to conduct interviews in relation to a court case may contact the presiding judge to seek permission to bring electronic equipment into the building for that purpose. If permission is granted, the judge will designate a specific area of the courthouse where such electronic equipment may be stored and used. After the interviews are completed the equipment must be immediately removed from the courthouse.

Local Rule 83.7(A) (p.74 in linked pdf).

The major exception in the rule applicable to the news media is limited to naturalization or other ceremonial proceedings, “or otherwise as ordered by the presiding judge.” Local Rule 83.7(B)(1).

In the Champaign case, Federal District Judge Joe Billy McDade initially decided to allow only local television stations to cover the September 15th hearing, in which various parties were permitted to comment on the consent decree which settled the case, with the expectation that the local stations would cover the hearing live. But after lawyers for the local newspaper, The News-Gazette, moved to intervene and argued that the paper should be permitted to bring in its own video and still cameras,McDade opened the hearing to video, still camera, and audio coverage more generally.

In the end, “at least four video cameras, two audio recorders and one still camera” recorded the hearing, according to The News-Gazette coverage. Besides the newspaper, cameras were present from the local TV stations, and two local radio stations used audio equipment. The resulting video won’t win any drama awards, but is certainly of interest to the Champaign community.Despite his ruling allowing coverage of this hearing, Judge McDade still isn’t convinced that coverage of federal civil trials should be a regular occurrence. “I still believe cameras in the courtroom are a distraction,” he said in response to the newspaper’s motion, according to The News-Gazette story. But, he added, in the Champaign school case, “I want the general public to get as much information as possible.”

Copyright 2009 Citizen Media Law Project