Eric Johnson was reading the newspaper last year when a column, written by a Utah judge, caught his eye.
The judge, who was a member of a committee responsible for the historic opening of state courtrooms to cameras and other electronic media, said he hoped allowing the public to see what goes on in courtrooms from the comfort of their own homes – through television broadcasts of trial court proceedings — would increase public trust in the courts.
It gave Johnson an idea: Why not broadcast divorce court proceedings?
“I said, ‘This is fantastic!’ “ Johnson told The Tribune. “Our courts are public, and the public should know more about the courts.”
The Salt Lake City-based family law attorney said his intention has always been to educate and inform — a goal, he said, that falls in line with the stated purpose of the rule allowing cameras in courtrooms.
But court administrators, judges and commissioners have questioned the lawyer’s motives and denied his requests. They also propose to change a rule.
Rather than the onus being on judges to justify why cameras should be banned from a particular court proceeding, the proposed rule states that the person applying to record a family law proceeding must prove to the judge why they ought to be allowed in.
It’s a slight change, said court officials, who insisted it would have little effect on “legitimate news organizations” and their ability to gather pertinent news.
“This is about recording information that would go out on the Internet and then be there forever,” said Brent Johnson, general counsel for the courts. “Some of the concerns were about individuals’ right to a fair trial. ... The law is sometimes about line-drawing.”
But media rights activists argue it’s a bad precedent.
“My long-term concern is this is just the first in a series of iterative exceptions that different groups think should be added to the rule,” said media law attorney David Reymann, who also represents the Society of Professional Journalists in speaking out against the rule change. “It completely takes away from what the original committee was trying to do, which is open up the courts and increase transparency.”
Utah’s Judicial Council, the judiciary’s policy-making body, is soliciting comments on the proposal until June 24. Court officials said the Judicial Council will likely vote on the issue during its August meeting.
Last year, when Utah opened its courts to electronic media coverage, the state went from having some of the most restricted courtrooms in the country to some of the most open.
In addition to allowing TV cameras into courtrooms, Utah joined an even more exclusive group of states that explicitly allow the use of new technologies such as smartphones, tablets and laptops.
Banning cameras, but continuing to allow members of the public to bring personal electronic devices into open proceedings — no matter whether they’re criminal or civil in nature — makes no sense, Reymann said.
“There should be no distinction between camera coverage of open proceedings and a reporter, who’s able to sit there and live-tweet the whole thing out or report it second-hand,” he said. “If anything, a video recording will be more accurate.”
Eric Johnson, who denied accusations that his online video channel would be used for self-promotion, said people look to the Internet to research and gain an understanding of how things work before they attempt to navigate new experiences.
“I’m not trying to be a National Enquirer-kind of guy, I just want the public to see how the courts work,” Johnson said.
Johnson has submitted more than a dozen requests to the court to allow him to record divorce hearings. All but one have been systematically denied.
In an effort to meet the court halfway, Johnson said, he told judges he would black out names, blur faces, alter voices, even, if there was a concern about the privacy of those involved.
In documents submitted to the court, Johnson outlined his argument for access: he was running his YouTube channel as a news source, akin to a blog or podcast; there are multiple volunteer reporters enlisted to record hearings and create video for the channel; he has even begun to solicit advertisers, to legitimize his news organization.
When he learned about the rule change proposal last month, Johnson said, he was furious.
“Transparency should make for courts functioning better and people being better served by the system,” he said.