Cameras in Courtrooms: Necessary or Nuisance?

With the explosion of social media and live streaming video platforms, we undoubtedly are living a communications revolution. The public has access to more information than ever and that thirst for knowledge has fueled a staunch debate in the legal system.

Cameras in courtrooms has been a hot topic for several years now and the controversy only gets more and more heated. On one side, it’s argued that filming makes it difficult to choose unbiased jurors and cameras in courtrooms create a media circus. Case in point: the O.J. Simpson murder trial.

This past weekend marked the 20th anniversary of the verdict when the former NFL star was acquitted of the murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman. More than 150-million people watched the verdict read live on TV.

For nearly nine-months the public watched the infamous trial unfold on their television sets, real-life drama that fascinated millions and set a precedent for cameras in courtrooms.

The argument for and against cameras in courtrooms remains the same today as it was two decades ago. One side claiming the public has a right to ‘see for themselves.’

“It provides a more accurate version of court proceedings than a third-person account can ever hope to do,” Media Law professor Jane Kirtleyof the University of Minnesota wrote in 1995.

The opposing side says the camera is not an impartial bystander; that it in fact can end up playing a crucial role in the shaping of events inside and outside the courtroom. That role ultimately puts the pursuit of justice in jeopardy and distorts the truth-seeking process.

Just recently the Jodi Arias trial unfolded before millions of television viewers. The murder trial was live streamed but while the judge in her death penalty trial allowed a camera, he ordered footage not to be released until after the sentence was handed down.

All 50 states permit the use of audio/visual coverage of court proceedings, although specifics vary from state to state. The Supreme Court on the other hand does not (audio is released but is delayed).

This past summer a three-year pilot project to evaluate the effect of cameras in district court courtrooms concluded. Courts in 14 different states participated, and the Federal Judicial Center is currently studying the program.  Results on its successes and failures will be reported to the Judicial Conference of the United States (the federal judiciary’s policymaking body). The conference could vote on expanding the use of cameras in federal courtrooms as soon as this winter.

Other lawmakers are voicing their opinions on the subject as well. This session alone Congress has introduced five bills that would allow cameras inside the Supreme Court. Justices head back for the next term this month but no hearings were ever had concerning these proposed bills.

Much like any other legal matter, only time will tell.

What do you think about cameras in courtrooms?  Are they necessary or a nuisance?