Free Speech Advocates Request Transparency While Courts Are Closed

April 7, 2020 by Tom Ramstack
Closeup of gavel in court room. (Dreamstime/TNS)

WASHINGTON – Free speech advocates are expressing concern that criminal proceedings being held by closed circuit video during the coronavirus pandemic threaten to cut off the people’s right to know what’s happening in federal and state courts.

A federal judiciary policy announced last week allows judges, attorneys and defendants to appear remotely at pretrial and sentencing hearings.

Many courts throughout the nation are closed as they prepare for the worst of the coronavirus’ onslaught in the next few weeks. Others continue with criminal proceedings but have postponed all civil cases.

Their video and teleconference hearings are rarely open to the media or the public.

The U.S. Judicial Conference, which was established by Congress to set policy guidelines for administration of courts, said in a statement that it was “evaluating this issue…”

The courts have never faced such a severe epidemic previously, meaning procedures adopted during the coronavirus outbreak could represent a long-term contingency for responding to emergencies.

The Judicial Conference also is granting a temporary exception to its rule banning cameras in courtrooms.

The free press advocacy group Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has compiled a list of recommendations to ensure transparency while courthouses are closed.

The group recommends that members of the media continue to be allowed into courtrooms closed to the general public. The media also should be given access to live video or recordings of court proceedings, the Reporters Committee says.

They want to be able to dial in to listen to teleconferences. In addition, they suggest the courts give them advance notice of postponed proceedings.

The First Amendment Coalition, another media advocacy group, is asking California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye to develop guidelines for keeping courts open for news reporters.

The state courts are exempted from the governor’s March 19 order that all non-essential organizations shut down until the pandemic passes.

A letter the Coalition wrote to the chief justice says “criminal proceedings, such as arraignments and sentencing, that take place in courtrooms or via video must in some way be open to the public and press.”

The letter adds that “court records must remain publicly available. Access will come to a screeching halt if clerks’ offices are closed to the public.”

Court clerks nationwide acknowledge they are getting requests from journalists and advocacy organizations for record searches but add that they are limited in their ability to respond. Many of them are working remotely from home, which prevents them from searching their courts’ databases.

Philadelphia city officials recently sent out notices that they are “suspending the deadlines of all pending and incoming Right-to-Know requests until normal operations resume.”

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy signed legislation late last month that eliminates the deadlines for clerks to approve or deny requests for court records. He explained that a staffing shortage from coronavirus means the clerks cannot perform their regular duties.

Internationally, the clampdown on the media is even more bleak. Journalists in several Middle Eastern countries, China and Latin America have faced arrest or censorship after their news reports criticized their governments for their coronavirus responses.

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