Press battles camera bans in Trump trials

Caitlin Vogus Headshot

Deputy Director of Advocacy

Former President Donald Trump, wearing a black suit jacket, white shirt, and blue tie, stands and speaks into a microphone

Former President Donald Trump isn’t camera shy. His trials should be televised so the public can watch them and observe our justice system at work.

United States Department of Energy

A more up-to-date version of this article, revised on Nov. 29, 2023, to account for recent events, can be found here.

Journalists have spilled plenty of ink over the legal cases against former President Donald Trump. But because TV cameras have so far been largely shut out of the proceedings, video from those cases is rare.

American courts have long said that transparency helps public trust in them, something that Trump and his legal team are actively working to undermine. Televising or livestreaming Trump’s trials — so that as many members of the public as possible can watch and judge for themselves the evidence against the former president — would help protect the judicial system itself.

Unfortunately, many courts remain skeptical of televising courtroom proceedings. With the exception of one state case, most of the proceedings against Trump likely won’t be televised. Here’s the current status of TV cameras in the courtroom in each of the cases involving Trump:

Georgia election racketeering case

Judge Scott McAfee, who’s overseeing the state election racketeering case against Trump and others in Georgia, is the only judge so far to announce that he will allow at least certain parts of this trial against the former president to be televised.

Georgia law specifically allows for trials to be recorded with the approval of the judge and sets out strict criteria a judge must find are met in order to deny a request to record.

David E. Hudson, general counsel for the Georgia Press Association, told The New York Times that in his more than 40 years of experience representing the press, he could not recall one trial that had been closed to cameras. And yet the sky hasn’t fallen and justice is still being done in Georgia. Imagine that.

New York civil fraud case and criminal cases

Trump is a defendant in two cases in New York state courts, one a civil financial fraud trial that is already underway and another a criminal trial set to begin in March 2024 on charges related to the alleged payment of hush money to adult film actor Stormy Daniels.

None of Trump’s civil trial has been televised, including Trump’s recent testimony, because of New York’s strict law prohibiting cameras in the courtroom. However, Judge Arthur Engoron did permit recording in the courtroom for a brief period before the start of opening statements in the fraud trial.

In the criminal case, Judge Juan Merchan denied the media’s request to allow TV cameras in the courtroom when Trump was arraigned.

While Trump’s New York cases aren’t going to be televised or streamed, a long-standing effort to change the New York law prohibiting recording of courtroom proceedings may be picking up steam. Earlier this year, a state lawmaker introduced a bill that would permit audio-visual recording and livestreaming of trial and appellate proceedings in New York. The bill can be taken up again when the legislature reconvenes in January.

Washington, D.C., election obstruction case

In October, a coalition of media organizations asked the Judicial Conference of the United States to revise a decades-old rule that prohibits broadcasting (its term) criminal trials. It asked the Conference to authorize judges to permit all federal criminal trials to be broadcast or, alternatively, make an exception allowing it for Trump’s trial in Washington for federal election subversion — as well as a second federal trial in Florida (more on that below). The request was denied.

The Judicial Conference, the policymaking body for the federal courts, said it would study the issue of broadcasting of criminal trials, essentially kicking the can down the road (again). The Conference has been “studying” cameras in the courtroom for more than 30 years. It even rejected a recommendation from one of its previous studies that urged it to allow civil proceedings to be broadcast.

Not all hope for cameras in the courtroom is lost, however. A coalition of media organizations and, separately, NBC News have also asked Judge Tanya Chutkan to allow cameras to broadcast or record Trump’s election obstruction trial.

Trump has officially taken no position on the request, though his lawyers have repeatedly called for his trials to be televised. Despite the fact that President Joe Biden’s administration has regularly stated its support for press freedom and transparency, the government has opposed the news media’s request, saying that the rules prohibit it.

The news outlets note that the courthouse itself has cameras that send a live feed of the trial to an overflow room, which could also be used to livestream the trial to the public. NBC News also argued that, if the court isn’t going to allow live broadcast, it should at least allow the trial to be recorded for historical posterity.

The news outlets have until mid-November to file briefs responding to the government, after which Judge Chutkan could hold a hearing to consider the issue before ruling.

Florida classified documents case

In Trump’s criminal trial in federal court in Florida over his handling of classified documents, the court has shown some early hostility to cameras and other access measures requested by the press during pretrial proceedings.

A judge first denied a media coalition’s request to permit video recording or pictures during Trump’s arraignment, including in the corridor outside the courtroom. The court’s chief judge also banned all electronic devices from the courtroom during the arraignment, making it much harder for reporters to take notes and send real-time written reports.

Later, Judge Aileen Cannon denied a request from the press — which neither Trump nor the government opposed — to use electronic devices during Trump’s arraignment on new charges.

While there’s been no media request to televise Trump’s actual trial yet, the court’s initial rulings on cameras and press access more generally leave us pessimistic about the odds of cameras in the courtroom for Trump’s Florida trial.

Congress should step in

The press undoubtedly faces an uphill battle in convincing the federal courts in Washington, D.C., and Florida to allow Trump’s trials to be televised or livestreamed. But Congress could and should step in. The Sunshine in the Courtroom Act of 2023, a bipartisan bill that would allow cameras in federal courts, has gained support from some lawmakers following Trump’s indictments.

Experience from states that allow cameras in the courtroom shows the benefits of televising or streaming criminal trials. If the Judicial Conference and federal courts won’t act to allow cameras in courts, even in historic trials of a former president, Congress must.

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