Barely a year ago, a revolutionary change occurred when Utah courtrooms, for the first time, allowed television cameras, radio equipment and personal electronic devices to record and transmit court proceedings.
The change represented an important victory for access to and transparency and accountability of our judicial branch.
But an effort already is underway to erode that gain.
Utah State Courts has proposed a change to the rule allowing cameras in courtrooms that would presume all proceedings in domestic-relations cases, including divorce, child custody, child support and protective-order hearing are closed.
Family attorney Eric Johnson’s attempts to procure media "pool" privileges to record domestic-relations proceedings and post them on his YouTube channel and website apparently led to the change.
Rule 4-401.01 never has allowed any and all cameras into open court proceedings. Rather, news organizations participate in a pool in which a single organization files a request to shoot video in a particular court case. If the request is granted, the pool photographer shares the video with all members of the pool.
Utah State Courts never granted Johnson a pool request, proposing to change the rule instead.
Those of us who work at The Salt Lake Tribune join fellow journalists in objecting to the change, hoping the courts will consider a modification rather than a presumed prohibition of cameras in all domestic proceedings.
Before the change, the rule already included numerous provisions that enable judges to protect sensitive information in domestic-relations cases.
A judge, for example, can bar cameras from proceedings to protect an individual’s safety or the interests of a minor or to prevent an unwarranted invasion of privacy.
Such provisions apply to all types of court cases.
Journalists represented by the Utah Headliners chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists believe all types of court cases can be sensitive, and domestic proceedings should not be treated any differently than other types of hearings.
Attorney David Reymann, who was instrumental in helping get the rule change that first allowed cameras in Utah courtrooms, says it best in his arguments against the presumed prohibition.
"Making ad hoc exceptions to the rule’s bedrock presumption of access is a slippery slope," he wrote.
"Today it may be domestic-relations cases that are excepted; tomorrow it may be all juvenile proceedings, then all proceedings involving a minor witness, then all sex-crime cases, then all corporate trade-secret cases, and on and on, until the rule is completely eviscerated."
Utah State Courts is taking comments on the proposed rule change until June 24 at http://bit.ly/1jp23on.
Utah SPJ proposes a modification to the rule that would enable a judge in granting a pool request to consider whether the primary purpose of the request is something other than journalism or dissemination of news to the public.
As always, journalists’ goal — acting on the public’s behalf — is to advocate for access to government proceedings.
We see this attempt to rescind access as bad policy that would set a bad precedent.
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