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A ban on cameras in federal court hasn’t stopped WOIO-TV in Cleveland, Ohio from giving viewers a firsthand look at the scandal and intrigue unfolding during a local politician’s corruption trial. But the coverage isn’t coming from your average television reporter — instead, the station is using a fuzzy, buck-toothed squirrel puppet.
Yes, you read that correctly. A puppet. A squirrel puppet. In a suit and tie. (To see for yourself, click here.)
Calling the expletive-laced discussions about herpes, prostitution, gambling, and mob connections recounted during Cuyahoga County Commissioner Jimmy Dimora’s trial “material for satire,” the station’s news director, Dan Salamone, decided to create “The Puppet’s Court” with the help of local puppeteers. The station has already aired several “Puppet’s Court” segments featuring not only the squirrel newscaster but also a puppet in a judge’s robe, puppets yawning in the jury box, and puppets scheming together on the telephone, reenacting Dimora’s alleged criminal behavior using transcripts of the wiretapped conversations prosecutors have played in court.
“News organizations have always had some form of lampooning or satire,” Salamone told Time.com’s NewsFeed in a recent interview, explaining that the segments are aired at the end of the newscast with the other “lighter” stories. “There’s a place for it and I think we have it in the right place.”
It bothers me that, although these segments can be entertaining, they also seem to belittle the formality and importance of federal court proceedings. Yet I have to remember that the station is using its First Amendment freedom of expression to depict the proceedings in this way in large part because the Judicial Conference of the United States has decided that policy concerns should sometimes override the First Amendment freedom of press in federal court.
Though many state courts allow media access, Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 53 has expressly banned media coverage in federal criminal trials since 1946. The judicial conference adopted an official policy in 1972 that extended the ban to civil trials as well. The reason: to avoid witness intimidation and the potential for lawyers and judges to feel pressured to speak in “sound bites” for the camera. (The ban was lifted in appellate courts in 1996, given that those courts do not use live witnesses.)
There have never been cameras in the US Supreme Court, though sound recordings of oral arguments are posted at www.oyez.org. The justices have long been opposed to video recordings of proceedings, despite pleas from First Amendment advocates who believe in government transparency and equal access to our court system. C-SPAN has asked the Court to consider allowing cameras for the arguments on President Obama’s health care overhaul for this reason, but it has not been granted that permission.
However, lower courts may be headed toward a change in policy soon. The Judicial Conference began a three-year pilot study allowing camera recordings of civil cases in fourteen federal districts across the country. I am in favor of at least exploring the idea, because like former US Solicitor General Kenneth Starr, I think that the “idea that cameras would transform the court into ‘Judge Judy’ is ludicrous.” In any case, I don’t know if a Judge Judy-type atmosphere is any worse than the fuzzy puppet circus we’re apparently stuck with today.
– Lauren Gregory
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