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Benchmarks: Journal of the New York State Unified Court System

Court of Appeals Sustains New York’s Ban on Broadcast of Trial Court Proceedings

BY MARC BLOUSTEIN

To a generation that became absorbed in O.J. Simpson’s televised trial in the mid-1990s, and that now can regularly watch trials on Court TV, it may come as a surprise that, in 2005, television and radio stations have no legal right to enter a New York courtroom and broadcast its proceedings to the public.

That was the ruling of the New York State Court of Appeals last June in Court TV’s challenge to New York’s 53-year-old ban on audio-visual broadcast of most trial court proceedings. The Court of Appeals held that, while the press has as much right to enter a courtroom to observe proceedings as any member of the public has, that right does not extend to permitting the media to broadcast those proceedings to the outside world. Thus, the court concluded, the State Legislature may bar such broadcast altogether. In its decision, the court also clarified that only the Legislature could lift the present ban.

Section 52 of the state’s Civil Rights Law, which codifies the ban, was enacted just after World War II. It was one of many such statutes passed by a great number of states largely in reaction to public indignation at abuses associated with media coverage of celebrated trials in the 20s and 30s, notably the Scopes “Monkey” trial and Bruno Hauptmann’s trial for the kidnaping and murder of the Lindbergh baby.

Through the 50s and 60s, while the state of audio-visual technology remained somewhat primitive, and there were continued reports of abuses in the sensationalized press coverage of cases elsewhere in the country, New York showed little interest in relaxing its ban. Beginning around 1980, however, things appeared to change. TV had become a focal point of American family life, and cameras and their associated electronic gear had grown smaller and far less obtrusive. Recognizing this, the Supreme Court of the United States, in 1981, rebuffed a Florida defendant’s challenge to audio-visual broadcast of his criminal trial, holding that a state may permit radio, TV and still-photographic coverage of a trial even over the defendant’s objection. At this point, many states began rethinking their reluctance to permit cameras in their courtrooms.

In 1982, New York joined this trend and, by 1987, the Legislature adopted the first of what would be four two- to three-year experiments relaxing Section 52’s broadcast ban and permitting the press, under some circumstances, to televise court proceedings. It appeared as if cameras in the courts were here to stay. In 1997, however, the last of these experiments ended, and they have not been renewed since — even though there is no evidence that, while they ran, there were any of the abuses that originally inspired enactment of Section 52.

Many commentators blame this on the O.J. Simpson trial. They believe that, far from educating and informing the public, media broadcast of that trial brought out the worst in its participants and made a mockery of justice. Whatever the reason, any movement to bring cameras into the courtroom has stalled. With the Court of Appeals’ recent decision confirming the Legislature’s exclusive right to determine if and when court proceedings may be aired electronically, the future of New York’s nascent movement in broadcasting trials is uncertain.

Marc Bloustein is the First Deputy Counsel, OCA’s Counsel’s Office.

Fall 2005PDF Format
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