Wednesday, 23 June 2021 22:36

OPINION: Breaking a broken rule

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During her 1927 obscenity trial, the judge reportedly asked Mae West if she was "trying to show contempt for this court?”

West infamously quipped, "I was trying my best to conceal it."

It's a contempt charge that landed my former colleague Gavin Stone in a cage for five days and resulted in an extortion payment of $500 for reporter Matthew Sasser.

If you saw a reporter’s paycheck, you’d know that’s quite a chunk of change.

Some may think that, since we are competitors, I would be giddy about the news.

On the contrary, I'm quite livid.

Gavin and Matthew are accused of violating a standing order by Resident Superior Court Judge Stephan Futrell and Chief District Court Judge Amanda Wilson that, in part, prohibits cellphones, cameras and other electronic devices.

Yes, they broke the rule. But it’s an unreasonable rule.

When I first saw a similar order seven years ago, issued by former judge Tanya Wallace, I was flabbergasted. I remember returning to the office and telling the editor at the time that I wanted to challenge that order, as I felt it was unconstitutional. Though, I'm pretty sure I used more profane language — much like I did when I heard of Gavin's arrest.

(Speaking of unconstitutional, another rule in the order bars "shirts with obscene sayings or gestures or alcohol/drug advertisements" — but that's another rant for another day. In the meantime, see Cohen v. California.)

As a staunch advocate of free speech and freedom of the press, I believe this order, and others like it, go too far.

Unlike a similar order in Alamance County, this one makes no exception for officers of the court, yet cops and lawyers often have their phones in their pockets or on their hips.

And cameras aren’t banned all the time. They’re allowed for the county commissioner meetings and special occasions — like Futrell's swearing-in ceremony in November 2018.

Maintaining a certain level of decorum in a courtroom is understandable. But many people, including lawyers, would argue that judges are granted too much power.

When I covered a murder trial in 2015 (the first time), the judge allowed us to take photos as long as the court was in recess and no jurors were in the courtroom.

Although it would have been nice to get shots of witnesses on the stand, as seen in other courts, this seemed a slightly reasonable concession.

The judge in the retrial wasn’t as accommodating and refused to allow any photography at all.

But, as Rule 15 of the N.C. General Rules of Practice for Superior and District Courts states, that’s allowed. The presiding judge can make that call.

I spent hours on Tuesday looking for any authorization for a blanket ban. I found nada.

Cameras and audio recorders are tools of the journalism trade.

There aren’t orders requiring the bailiffs to give up their guns or handcuffs or lawyers to leave behind their briefcases.

So why are we left with just pen and paper?

It seems pointless for Rule 15 to say that “Electronic media and still photography coverage of public judicial proceedings shall be allowed in the appellate and trial courts of this state …,” but in the first condition give judges the authority to say no on a whim.

The other conditions — including coverage of jurors, witnesses and certain cases — are reasonable.

The General Assembly should take another look at Rule 15 and make it more compatible with freedom of the press, rather than a hindrance, and address the blanket bans.

As I've said several times in the past: Contempt of court should be a reasonable reaction, not a criminal offense.

William R. Toler is managing editor of the Richmond Observer.

Last modified on Wednesday, 23 June 2021 23:28