Little-Known Rule Ostensibly Opens the Courts to the News Media
How would you feel if there were a news camera in the courtroom covering a case in which you were involved? Depending upon the kind of case, you may not have much to worry about.
There are rules that govern the conduct of judges and court commissioners known as the Utah Code of Judicial Administration. One of these rules (Rule 4-401.01) provides (among other things):
There is a presumption that electronic media coverage by a news reporter shall be permitted in public proceedings. The judge may prohibit or restrict electronic media coverage only if the judge finds that the reasons for doing so are sufficiently compelling to outweigh the presumption.
I have tried to implement this rule in conjunction with my YouTube channel, Utah Family Law TV, by making electronic media requests of courts in divorce and other domestic relations matters for hearings open to the public. With the exception of one judge in one county of this state, my requests have all been denied.
I've fared better with the Salt Lake Justice Court, which granted my request the first time I submitted it. And while I am nothing but grateful to the Salt Lake Justice Court for allowing the news media to cover public proceedings, rarely do justice courts treat domestic relations-related matters.
Frequently, domestic relations judges and commissioners reject electronic media coverage requests by concluding that such coverage would “constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy” or “jeopardize the interests or well-being of a minor.” At first blush, that might sound rational, but even when I have offered to “anonymize” my coverage of proceedings (i.e., blotting out faces, bleeping out names, and even altering the tones of voices), my requests are still denied.
It is not as though I don’t understand a judge’s reluctance to subject itself to the all-seeing eye of the electronic news media. Few of us warm to the idea of having a reporter on hand as certain parts of our lives are laid bare in most court proceedings. Yet it is hard to think of a single court case open to the public that did not invade the privacy of the participants to some extent. And it was judges themselves who drafted and passed Rule 4-401.01, and they did so because they recognize that access to the courts by a free press serves several crucial and a vital public interests; among them: transparency, civic education, and a populace kept abreast of current events. Frankly, there are times—many times—when the public’s right to know trumps individual privacy concerns. This is why Rule 4-401.01 provides for the prohibition or restriction of electronic media coverage only if it would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy. How many of us watched or listened to at least some of the television, radio, or Internet coverage of Dr. Martin MacNeill’s murder trial? While it was certainly a sensational event and story, it was arguably of little value with regard to the public’s interest in transparency of legal proceedings or civic education. The MacNeill murder trial was public spectacle, a real-life soap opera, and few deny that there is legitimate newsworthiness in such things.
The judge who presided over the MacNeill murder trial (which invaded the privacy of dozens of people—including some who were minor children when Dr. MacNeill was carrying on extramarital affairs and when he ultimately murdered his wife) felt that the public interest in news of the case outweighed the privacy concerns of Dr. MacNeill, his family, and the other witnesses in the case. Privacy concerns that arise in coverage of domestic relations cases pale in comparison to the depth and breadth of the invasion of privacy entailed in the MacNeill murder trial. Paradoxically, it seems that the more lurid and histrionic a case, the easier some judges and commissioners find it to grant the electronic news media access.
Given that about half of marriages in the United States (and Utah divorce rate is higher than the national average), and considering that the average Utah citizen is orders of magnitude more likely to see the inside of courtroom as a divorce or child custody litigant than as a murder, rape, or kidnapping defendant (or victim, for that matter), what is of more value to the public?