First Amendment outrage of the week: Judge allowed to ban news crew that made him look bad

Wednesday, May 17, 2000

Periodically, identifies a “First Amendment Outrage of the Week,” recognizing the single act or gesture most offensive to the spirit of free speech, free press and free expression.

Original story
  • Texas high court won’t hear appeal of TV station banned from courtroom

  • Judge allowed to ban news crew that made him look bad


    In 1998 KTVT-TV news in Dallas-Fort Worth broadcast a report on the work habits of some local judges. The story was unflattering to some of the judges portrayed. Dallas County Criminal Court Judge Jim Pruitt, for instance, was shown “spending considerable time in a bar during the work day,” according to court records.

    Fast-forward to 1999. KTVT asks permission to follow a court case by filming through a back-door window into Pruitt’s courtroom. Permission denied — by a court coordinator who tells the CBS-affiliate news organization that the reason for the refusal is its past critical stories about judges.

    Next KTVT’s news crew watches as another station is allowed to film proceedings in Pruitt’s court through the same window. Unfair? You bet, and KTVT went to Pruitt and said so. He was unmoved, saying, “I don’t think KTVT is a reputable news organization, and as such, I’m not going to allow you to film.” KTVT’s story about judges’ work ethic won an Emmy award for excellence.

    Next stop: Texas Supreme Court. KTVT argues that it has a constitutional right to cover criminal trials. But, without comment, seven of the nine justices allow Pruitt’s ban against KTVT to stand.

    Nancy Monson, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, said no specific Texas statute deals with camera coverage of courtrooms, although Texas operates under a presumption of access. However, she said, Texas judges commonly keep TV news out of court proceedings.

    According to her FIFT colleague, attorney Rob Wiley, the Texas Supreme Court adopted in the early 1990s an administrative rule allowing local courts — trial and appellate, civil and criminal — to formulate their own rules on courtroom camera coverage.

    So at the intersection of presumption of openness and local judicial discretion, KTVT got broadsided by a judge whose idea of discretion includes getting even. This case provides yet one more powerful argument in favor of cameras in courtrooms: the potential for abuse of judicial power.

    The American public is poorly served by a nationwide patchwork of rules and regulations that govern, depending on where you live, which courts and which cases are open to public observation through the lens of a news camera. This patchwork does little more than provide ill-clad excuses for the localized whims and arbitrary attitudes of judges who may feel they have looked bad in the press, or who fear that they might look bad.

    The public’s right to know how its legal system works must not be sacrificed under the false pretense that somehow openness automatically produces a loss of respect for the law, for courts and for judges. If judges behave disgracefully, then yes, there will be a loss of respect — but whose fault is that?

    Journalists have been roundly and rightly criticized for providing gavel-to-gavel lousy coverage of the criminal justice system. The good news is that news organizations, including KTVT, are trying hard to offer accurate, informed, insightful court coverage. The bad news is that some judges, like Jim Pruitt, so dislike having their own failings shown that they will shamefully use their discretionary power to shut the public’s window.

    And this just in — the other bad news is that other judges, like seven of the nine on the Texas Supreme Court, will let them get away with it.

    And still outraged by …

    • Trying to turn reporters’ notes into ‘evidence’
      With no Kansas shield law, Wichita Eagle has little defense against prosecutors who want ‘possession’ of materials from interview with murder suspect.
    • Bookstore tries to shelve subpoena of purchase records
      It should come as no surprise that the Drug Enforcement Administration and the North Metro Area Drug Task Force, which operates in the Denver area, would be most anxious to do everything they could to shut down a methamphetamine laboratory and prosecute those involved in the production of the illicit drug. But however strongly one feels about the dangers of drug use, it does not justify tromping on the First Amendment in an effort to add some circumstantial evidence to the government’s case.
    • Utah thought it had license to regulate speech
      Daron Malmborg’s ‘SCNDL’ Olympics vanity plate irritated motor-vehicles officials, so they tried
      to take it away.
    • Prior restrainers, restrain yourselves
      Persistence is generally thought virtuous. But when lawmakers persist in trying to foist unconstitutional bills of wrongs on the rest of us, it’s a vice.
    • Barking up same unconstitutional tree
      Why pass bills to force people to be patriotic and religious, when the whole point of founding the USA was to let people be free?
    • Jailing journalist doesn’t serve justice
      Much more than fair trial at stake as California judge orders journalist Tim Crews to expose confidential source.
    • Cops disassemble right to protest
      Applying strange reasoning to when First Amendment ‘applies,’ Denver police order peaceful protesters to vacate public forum.
    • City’s limit on church attendance out of line
      Portland, Ore., official tries to solve neighborhood-nuisance problem by stripping worshippers of basic rights.
    • School’s art lesson doesn’t make grade
      For crime of displaying disturbing art, Sarah Boman is suspended and told she needs mental exam.
    • Breaking down his door shattered his First Amendment rights
      Town gadflies can be exasperating, maybe libelous — but that doesn’t mean they should be hauled off their live cable-TV shows and arrested, as happened in Winchester, Tenn.

    More outrage