Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Photography in a courthouse may not be illegal, but it can land you in jail

It's important to know that Sam Dodson isn't being charged with filming inside a courthouse in defiance of the law. That's important, because he was arrested for videorecording in the lobby of the Keene District Court, in Keene, New Hampshire, during the course of media coverage of a case there. Dodson's camera use defied the wishes of a judge who banned photography anywhere in the courthouse despite a state-wide policy permitting cameras in the courtrooms themselves. To top it off, it's likely that the judge's policy is rooted in nothing more than embarrassment that one of his courtroom tantrums was filmed and uploaded to YouTube last year.

Dodson, a professional videographer, independent journalist, and member of the libertarian Free State Project, was at the Keene District Court on April 13, 2009, to cover the arraignment, ironically enough, of Dave Ridley, another Free Stater, for video recording at court. In the lobby, camera in hand, he was ordered to turn off his equipment based on a flyer taped to the wall banning photography. Seeing that the flyer cited no legal basis, he refused. And so he was arrested -- as were several other people supportive of Dodson. Only Dodson remains in jail, on a hunger strike, a month later. Officials keep him confined on $10,000 cash bail because he refuses to formally give his legal name -- an exercise of his right to remain silent -- as a protest against his arrest. Of course, his identity is known to the authorities.

The arrest seems to fly in the face of court policies clarified and formalized just last year. As the Keene Sentinel reports:

The rules for recording public hearings in courtrooms are relatively clear: The Supreme Court says it’s allowed unless “there is a substantial likelihood of harm to any person or other harmful consequence.”

But those foggy gray areas beyond the courtrooms remain untouched by state law.

The specific district court rule states:

The presiding judge should permit the media to photograph, record and broadcast all courtroom proceedings that are open to the public. The presiding judge may limit electronic media coverage if there is a substantial likelihood of harm to any person or other harmful consequence.

If recording is permitted inside the courtroom, why would it not be permitted in the lobby and hallways open to the public, where security concerns would seem to be minimal?

According to the Sentinel, Judge Edward J. Burke banned photography in the courthouse "in an effort to protect juveniles and victims of crimes walking through the lobby from being caught on film without their consent." That seems like a tenuous excuse given that people run the risk of being photographed in any public place at any time.

A more likely reason for the ban is Burke's mortification over a video of him throwing a courtroom tantrum in November of last year. In that video, Burke repeatedly snapped "have a seat" at a defendant before ordering the man arrested just seconds later. The seemingly confused defendant had begun to sit in compliance with an order to do so, then stopped and began to stand when his name was called. Viewed over 58,000 times, the video portrays Burke as petulant and petty.
That video just slightly predates Burke's February general ban on photography in the courthouse.

As of today, Dodson is charged with disorderly conduct, resisting arrest or detention and refusing to be processed. All of these charges would seem to be related to the arrest itself and its aftermath, not to Dodson's supposedly forbidden camera use. Perhaps the authorities aren't as certain about the legal basis for Burke's photography ban as they'd like the public to believe.

And, as of today, photography remains forbidden in the lobby of the Keene District Court -- not as a matter of law that anybody can cite, but to spare a hot-tempered judge further shame.

Original report here. (See original for videos)

(And don't forget your ration of Wicked Thoughts for today)

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