Keene Sentinel: Orders outside the court
A legal fog pervades the corridors and lobbies of New Hampshire’s courts.
The rules for recording public hearings in courtrooms are relatively clear: The Supreme Court says it’s allowed unless “there is a substantial likelihood of harm to any person or other harmful consequence.”
But those foggy gray areas beyond the courtrooms remain untouched by state law.
Snapping a photo or recording video in these places is permitted in some district courts and prohibited in others, at the presiding judge’s discretion.
Keene District Court Judge Edward J. Burke banned photography outside the courtroom in February in an effort to protect juveniles and victims of crimes walking through the lobby from being caught on film without their consent.
“All the district court judges who have had this issue come up in their courthouse have thought about it and we’re trying to deal with it as fairly and responsibly as we can,” state judicial branch spokeswoman Laura Kiernan said. “It’s the privacy rights of citizens that we’re concerned with here.”
On the other side of the issue, a group of activists with the Free State Project — an effort to recruit 20,000 people who prefer limited government to live in New Hampshire — are riled because they believe their right to record in a public place is being violated.Ian “Freeman” Bernard, an outspoken Free Stater and host of a nationally syndicated radio talk show based in Keene, said he wants video records of his transactions with clerk offices in court lobbies.
“We’re talking about public places and recording should be allowed there,” he said.
Seven activists were arrested in April for disorderly conduct when some Free Staters turned their cameras on in the Keene District Court lobby despite Burke’s order.
But on Friday during the trial of Andrew Carroll, a Free Stater and marijuana activist, the cameras stayed off in the lobby, even after much talk of another protest and the possibility of more arrests. That doesn’t mean the activists have given up, though, Bernard said.
“If they continue to try to keep our cameras from the lobby, there’s a good chance that someone’s going to challenge that,” he said.
The Free Staters who oppose Burke’s photography ban say the judge’s order, which remains taped to a wall in the lobby, carries no legal weight because it is not signed.
Burke did not return messages left at his office and his home seeking comment. Kiernan could not provide an answer on the legality of the order before press time.
A similar photography ban went into effect at Manchester District Court during last year’s capital murder trial of Michael K. Addison, who had gunned down a police officer and was sentenced to death.
The ban was necessary to alleviate a crush of camera crews and reporters crammed into the court’s lobby before and after hearings in Addison’s high-profile case, Kiernan said.
While judges have the authority to manage various aspects of the courts where they preside, they typically must get clearance from Judge Edwin W. Kelly, who oversees the state’s district courts, or Chief Justice John T. Broderick.
Broderick supported the Keene District Court photography ban, Kiernan said.
“The chief justice feels very strongly about the (photography ban) at Keene District Court. That’s what got the whole thing going … his concern for the safety issues over there,” she said. “But the presiding judge, that’s his responsibility, sure.”
Mixed with the issue of recording outside the courtroom are the citizen journalists, camera-toting activists and bloggers wanting to cover public court hearings. The judges are still trying to figure out how to handle them, and the struggle continues to play out at Keene District Court and other courts throughout the state.
Dave Ridley, a Manchester videographer with ties to the Free State Project, said he wants the courts to treat him the same as the so-called credentialed media — reporters with press cards from recognized media outlets.
Ridley was arrested at Keene District Court in March because he refused to turn off his camera in the lobby.
“I think of myself as an openly biased but fair reporter,” he said Friday while filming marijuana protesters outside the courthouse before Carroll’s trial. “As far as credentialed media, there’s no way to define that sort of thing. I’m just looking for equal access to the courts.”
And that’s exactly what the courts are trying to give Ridley and other citizen journalists, Kiernan said.
“We’re well-aware of the many gray areas,” she said. “We have worked hard to sort this out so members of the public and traditional media can have equal access to our courtrooms.”