The Marin Independent Journal of San Rafael, California is chafing over Judge Kelly Simmons’ decision to allow the photographer of the local high school newspaper exclusive access to the sentencing of a juvenile tried as an adult and convicted of auto theft and attempted murder. The IJ editor Robert Sterling wrote in an op-ed, January 30, 2014, “… we take seriously our role not only to cover the news and document the activities in the courts and other public venues, but also to be the public’s eyes and ears. We are a Marin County watchdog; we have been for 153 years. Any decision that limits our ability to cover the news is a blow to the public’s right to know — in this case, a limitation on public property outside of court and a restriction on professional photography at a significant moment in the prosecution of a major crime.” Sterling conceded that Simmons did allow the IJ access at various times, but challenged the “seemingly arbitrary nature of cameras in Marin Superior Court,” decisions made without hearings or explanations.
Certainly, as the IJ conceded, Simmons was within her rights to admit any photographer she chose. The California court rules on photographers (amended 2006 and 2007) allows judges considerable leeway. “The judge in his or her discretion may permit, refuse, limit, or terminate media coverage.” The rules also state that while the judge may decide to admit more than one photographer, the “normal requirements” designate a single still photographer per court session. Incidentally, the photos taken by the Redwood Bark of Larkspur were unusable. Sterling made a valid point that the IJ had a long history of supporting the Bark that extends to the present. “…our own photographer would have been happy to work alongside him [the Bark photographer] to offer technical tips that would have helped bring his photos up to professional standards. That wasn’t possible, because the Bark student was the only photographer allowed in court.” (First Amendment Coalition, January 30, 2014, by Donal Brown, formerly Bark adviser)