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Florida high court nixes proposed courtroom camera restrictions

By The Associated Press

A proposed rule change that could have severely limited courtroom camera coverage by the news media in order to protect privacy rights and confidential material was rejected yesterday by the Florida Supreme Court in Tallahassee.

The justices also turned down a proposal that would have allowed judges to ban television and still pictures of jurors' and prospective jurors' faces without holding hearings to give the news media a chance to object.

"We're thrilled and see the court's decision as continuing Florida's tradition of public access to our courts," said Carol LoCicero, a lawyer for Cable News Network and five other media companies that include 12 Florida TV stations and newspapers.

The media-supported First Amendment Foundation, based in Tallahassee, also objected to the rule changes proposed by a Florida Bar committee during a June hearing.

Circuit Judge Claudia Rickert Isom of Plant City, then the committee's chairwoman, had argued in favor of the proposals. She was not surprised by yesterday's unanimous decision.

"We knew that those were going to be looked at very closely by the court," she said. "I'm good. There wasn't a lot of ego vested in this."

Judges already have the power to restrict camera coverage to control decorum and make sure proceedings are fair.

Media lawyers argued that letting judges also take privacy and "privileged and confidential matters" into account would close most court proceedings to cameras. It's now rare that cameras are excluded.

"There's no privacy in a public courtroom," First Amendment Foundation lawyer Jonathan Kaney told the justices at the June hearing.

Janet Weaver, executive editor of the Tampa Tribune, one of the objecting newspapers, said the decision was a victory for journalists and the public.

"Part of our responsibility is to bring readers and viewers into the courtroom," Weaver said. "Journalists have proven to have been very responsible and respectful of the privilege."

Isom said she was confident judges have sufficient authority to ensure due-process rights and juror privacy without the proposed rules. Allowing judges to prohibit TV and still pictures of jurors' faces without a hearing, though, would have saved time, she said.

The justices' unsigned opinion offers no explanation for rejecting the privacy proposal but cites prior state Supreme Court and appellate decisions in turning down the juror-photography rule.

"Jurors are just as important as any other participant and should receive the same scrutiny," LoCicero said yesterday.

The high court also rejected another proposed rule that would have limited the use of court security cameras to only security purposes.

"That's a public record," said First Amendment Foundation President Barbara Petersen.

She said security tapes could provide a record of misdeeds in courthouses and that it would take an act of the Legislature, not a court rule, to exempt them from public-records laws.


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