Limits on Newsgathering Gear Eased by Federal Courts in Vermont

By Mike Donoghue

donoghueBURLINGTON, Vt. – The federal courts in Vermont have taken the first step toward easing restrictions on journalists carrying computers, iPhones and other electronic newsgathering tools past security checkpoints at federal buildings.The new rule, which took effect in mid-April, allows electronic devices in common areas outside a courtroom but still prohibits them from being used in court during hearings and trials.

The new rule continues to prohibit the use of video and still cameras or audio recordings in federal courtrooms.The rule covers U.S. District Court, the U.S. Magistrate Judge and the U.S. Bankruptcy Judge and applies to the courthouses in Burlington, Rutland and Brattleboro.The rule is in response to a petition by the Burlington Free Press in December for improved access.  The paper requested equal access with lawyers, law enforcement, victim advocates, court staff, other federal building employees and even family members of a judge, who have used computers or phones in the courtroom gallery.The new rule falls short of what journalists were hoping for or expecting.  Some federal courts throughout the nation and all state courts in Vermont allow the use of computers, laptops, iPhones and other electronic gear for note-taking, writing stories or collecting audio.  Vermont state courts have allowed video and still cameras and recordings since the mid 1980s.

Until the new rule were adopted, the U.S. Marshals Service impounded all electronic news-gathering devices at the first floor check-in points, which includes metal detectors.    That old rule posed a problem every week but became a serious aggravation in major cases.

One example was  the lengthy sentencing hearing for former Hardwick Electric Department office manager Joyce Bellavance in a $1.6 million embezzlement case at the utility. Some reporters had to leave the courtroom, go down five floors, retrieve cellphones or computers from the security checkpoint, provide details to their newsrooms or via Twitter, then surrender their phone or computer, return to the fifth floor and re-enter the courtroom while the hearing was in progress – only to be repeated a couple more times during the lengthy hearing before the sentence was imposed.

Journalists must apply to the Court Clerk’s office for a media identification card before they can carry their gear past the checkpoint staffed by the Marshals Service. The new rule has sparked interest from the media in other states on how to start the process of revising outdated access rules.

In response to the Free Press petition the court proposed a new rule that allowed reporters only to bring their gear to the courtrooms, where the devices had to be turned off.  They would be allowed to use the devices outside the courtroom. The proposed rule was drafted after a short study by the court staff,  reviewed by the judges and circulated for public comment.

Several journalism groups, including the Vermont Press Association, the New England First Amendment Coalition and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press submitted  letters during the public comment period supporting the Burlington Free Press for improved access.

There were no objections offered by members of the bar, who are used to seeing journalists using their silent newsgathering tools during hearings and trials in state courts.

Much to the dismay of Vermont journalists, the court in issuing the new rule did not budge and said newsgathering devices could not be used in a courtroom.  They had hoped Vermont would adopt a new rule similar to the federal courts in Massachusetts, which allow the use of electronic devices in courtrooms.

The court in Vermont also rejected an alternative proposed by the Free Press that a 3-to-6 month trial period for using electronic devices during initial hearings, arraignments and other non-jury proceedings.

“We took the media’s request for greater access to electronic devices in the courthouses seriously,” Chief U.S. District Court Judge Christina Reiss said in a statement issued to the Free Press.

“At the same time, we have strict rules governing cameras and broadcasting from federal courtrooms. Our goal was to strike an appropriate balance between public access to our courtrooms through the media and adhering to the federal rules and Judicial Conference policy that we must follow,” Reiss wrote.

The judges did not say how they reached their conclusions or if they had votes on the key requests.

Court Clerk Jeff Eaton said there is no national policy.  He said his research showed a wide range of policies across the country. He said the proposed rule for Vermont also takes into consideration findings by federal judicial conferences. Eaton said among the issues considered is the potential inconvenience to judges, jurors and other participants.

The one suggestion the court adopted was a recommendation for a bench/media committee on improving access to the court and other issues.  The Free Press and VPA, which represents the interests of the 11 daily and four dozen non-daily newspapers circulating in Vermont, suggested the committee.

Television and radio stations in Vermont tend not to cover federal court hearings, but rely on press releases or reading stories out of newspapers.

“By creating a bench/media committee, we hope to maintain an ongoing dialogue that will keep pace with changing and emerging technology as well as with the needs of the public, the media and the courts,” Reiss said.

Eaton said the size, makeup and operation of the bench/media committee has yet to be determined.   Applications from media members will be accepted until the end of May.

Mike Donoghue is a staff writer for the Burlington Free Press and helped petition for the request.  He serves on the NEFAC Board and is the part-time Executive Director of the Vermont Press Association.

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