By Lena Williams, Guild-CWA :: State courts in Iowa and Wyoming this month have upheld the media’s right to open court proceedings and to photograph court cases. The rulings, though local in scope, are major First Amendment victories for journalists and media organizations.
The Wyoming Supreme Court ruled Aug. 12 that an Eighth Judicial Court judge “erred” when he closed the courtroom and sealed the court file in a 2012 sexual assault case involving a juvenile. As the media sought information, the court went so far as to deny the existence of the case file.
Circuit Judge I. Vincent Case Jr. claimed that Wyoming statute required the closure of records and proceedings in sexual assault cases to hide the identities of both victim and defendant.
The Casper-Star Tribune, the Wyoming Press Association, Associated Press and several other news organizations challenged the ruling in district court and won. The Wyoming Attorney General’s office appealed to the state Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court ruled that Judge Case overstepped, violating the First Amendment by closing the courtroom and the file.
“The statute only applies prior to the filing of information or an indictment in district court,” the court wrote in its ruling. “Once that determination is made, the circuit court either binds the defendant over to district court, or dismisses the case altogether.”
Jason Adrians, editor of the Star-Tribune, called the court’s decision “a victory for transparency in Wyoming.”
The paper’s editorial board wrote: “We hope the decision sends a statement in a state where both courts and many law enforcement agencies struggle to understand they can’t arbitrarily redact names in public documents of which they’re stewards. Law enforcement should take note: State law favors openness, not arbitrary redactions and closed records.
Jim Angell, executive director of the Wyoming Press Association, said the ruling would make it easier for journalists to do their jobs. “That’s why we do these things,” Angell told the Associated Press. “We do these things because we’re guardians of the public’s knowledge of what’s happening around them.”
In another victory for the public’s right to know, an Iowa district judge last week reversed a decision that barred a photojournalist from publishing photos from a hearing of a local mayor accused of sexual abuse.
Jerry Blue, a photographer for the Fayette County Union in West Union, Iowa, had been publicly scolded by Judge Joel Dalrymple for taking photographs in the courtroom without advance permission and for not wearing credentials. Dalrymple issued a noncompliance order against Blue and warned him that publishing the photos could result in Blue and his newspaper being held in contempt of court.
The paper’s owner, Community Media Group, wrote a letter protesting the ban, saying it violated the revised rules of media coverage of Iowa courts that specifically allow audio and visual media coverage.
Anelia Dimitrova, an editor and spokeswoman for Community Media Group, said Judge Richard Stochl made a decision to allow what were legitimately gathered photographs to be used. “I think the people have a right to know, especially when the defendant is a public figure,” Dimitrova told AP.
While the rulings are a cause for optimism about freedom of the press, they are yet another indication of a growing number of government attempts to restrict press freedom by censoring, harassing or barring journalists from doing their jobs.
Since the 1964 Supreme Court decision in New York Times v Sullivan affirmed a distinct role and need for distinct protections for journalists, courts have generally been hostile to claims of journalistic principles and rights. Greater protections are now found under freedom of speech than freedom of the press. The decisions in Wyoming and Iowa are steps in the right direction toward restoring the basic principle of press freedom as a legal right and not merely an objective in regulatory and constitutional design.