Minnesota legislature moves to restrict courtroom broadcasts

Minnesota’s courts recently completed a successful pilot program to allow broadcasts of  sentencing and related post-conviction hearings in criminal matters. The Minnesota Supreme Court has also shown strong support for opening its courtrooms to broadcasts in the public interest.

Some members of the state legislature, however, remain unconvinced. Yesterday, the House Public Safety Committee advanced a bill that would severely restrict the broadcast of sentencing hearings, unless everyone involved agrees in advance. The bill also would prohibit the use of state funds for audio or video coverage of criminal proceedings.

Sponsors of the bill argue that witnesses and victims may be reluctant to testify if cameras are running. That sentiment is understandable, but the bill itself is sorely misguided. Proceedings in an open courtroom reflect a careful balance between the rights and sensitivities of victims and witnesses, those of the accused or convicted, and those of the general public. Modern broadcasting tools do not upset this balance; they merely extend its reach outside the courthouse. Indeed, the current practice already prohibits broadcasts of victim statements, witness testimony, or the jury, while still permitting the public to witness the administration of justice.

Attorney Mark Anfinson, a proponent of courtroom broadcasts, nicely summarized the real benefits of the existing system: “What it does is it provides a reassurance, a catharsis, a demonstration of how the justice system works. And that has enormous value to the people whose court system it is, after all.”

Hear, hear. Hopefully the legislature will ultimately reject the bill and allow the state court system to continue serving the public interest by broadcasting certain hearings through both audio and video channels.

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