Tennessee TV station charged with violating court rules

Thursday, February 19, 1998

Criminal Court Judge Cheryl Blackburn has—for the second time—summoned a Nashville, Tenn., news organization into court for violating state Supreme Court guidelines on photographing witnesses.

In December 1995, the high court adopted rules that allow cameras in the courtroom but specifically prohibit the photography of any minor, except when “being tried for a criminal offense as an adult.”

Blackburn ordered News Channel 5 Plus, a CBS-affiliate owned by local TV-station WTVF, to appear before the court Monday for a hearing on possible sanctions against the station.

During live coverage of Tuesday's hearing involving murder suspect Paul Dennis Reid, the cable channel broadcast the testimony of a 17-year-old restaurant worker.

Reid is being tried for the Feb. 16, 1997, slayings of Captain D's workers Steve Hampton, 25, and Sarah Jackson, 16.

First Amendment attorney Richard Hollow said that, in this case, any sanctions against the media “would be unfortunate.”

“Obviously, the media should respect the law and should refrain from any conscious or knowing violation,” said Hollow, who is also general counsel for the Tennessee Press Association. “That having been said, however, the primary responsibility for the maintenance of the court, its decorum and its compliance with the law, rests with the trial judge.

“The court should have specified that everyone should blank out the cameras and go off the air while this 17-year-old testified,” Hollow said.

News Channel 5 Plus officials declined comment, instead referring to Phil Bell, a director of local programming for News Channel 5. Bell has failed to return a phone call.

Blackburn, who has also not returned phone calls, had sent copies of the Supreme Court's rules to all news organizations covering the hearing, The Tennessean reported today.

In January, Blackburn ordered the Nashville Banner to write a letter of apology to a 13-year-old murder trial witness after the newspaper published a front-page photograph of her testifying. The paper, which ends its 122-year press run on Friday, also agreed to conduct internal training sessions on the rules.

In addition, two Nashville television stations violated the rules in December when they broadcast footage of a 15-year-old boy testifying in a murder trial in General Sessions Court. They were not reprimand for their actions, however.