The Public Has a Right to Know: It’s Time to Allow Cameras in Federal Courts

Press Release
The National Center for Public Policy Research

For Immediate Release: May 5, 1997

Contact: Amy Ridenour (202) 507-6398 or [email protected]

The Public Has a Right to Know: It’s Time to Allow Cameras in Federal Courts
New “Sunshine in the Courtroom Act” Would Give Judges Discretion to Allow Cameras
Saying the time is long since past for U.S. courts to open themselves to public scrutiny, The National Center for Public Policy Research today called upon the U.S. court system to open itself to the public much like the way the U.S. Congress now receives public scrutiny through C-SPAN.

“Allowing cameras to cover Congress made a huge difference in the public’s attention to the details of legislation,” said Amy Moritz Ridenour, president of The National Center for Public Policy Research. “That and the phenomenon of talk radio has given millions of the citizens the information they need to involve themselves more effectively in the political process. It’s time now for the next logical step: opening the public proceedings of the third branch of government to cameras, so people in all 50 states can view important criminal and civil trials and view court arguments over important constitutional questions.”

Under present law, television coverage of federal proceedings at both the trial and appellate level is now effectively banned, and television coverage of federal civil proceedings is severely curtailed. Between 1991 and 1993 several federal courts conducted a pilot television project with great success. The project found that judges overall are neutral on the idea of legalizing cameras in the courtroom, but after experiencing televised proceedings firsthand, actually became more favorable to the idea. 48 of the 50 states now presently permit some type of audio-visual coverage of court proceedings, and not a single state has ever repealed a decision, once made, to allow camera coverage of its courts.

On April 10 a bi-partisan group led by Reps. Steve Chabot (R-OH) and Charles Schumer (D-NY) introduced HR 1280, the “Sunshine in the Courtroom Act” to allow federal judges to open their courtrooms to television coverage. The Act also permits judges to ban cameras from selected proceedings at their sole discretion.

Introducing the bill, Rep. Chabot commented: “An informed citizenry is essential to our constitutional system of checks and balances. The federal courts play a very important part in our government, and federal judges serve for life. The American people deserve an opportunity to see how they operate.” Rep. Schumer called cameras in the courtroom a chance to “demystify an often intimidating legal system.”

The National Center for Public Policy Research cites several reasons why cameras should be allowed in federal courtrooms, among them:

  • 48 states already allow cameras in the courtroom.
  • Studies in 28 states show that television coverage of court proceedings has significant social and educational benefits.
  • Cameras allow citizens to see their judicial system at work. The public’s right to know is significantly enhanced by the presence of cameras in the U.S. House (since 1977) and the U.S. Senate (since 1986).
  • The Founding Fathers intended public access to courtrooms, preferring courtrooms in their own day large enough to hold entire communities, and advocating, according to the journals of the Continental Congress, holding trials “before as many people as chuse to attend.”
  • Cameras in the courtroom benefit the victims of crimes. Victims of the Oklahoma City bombing, for instance, have been adamant that they — and the world — be permitted to watch the trial of Timothy McVeigh.
  • The Supreme Court has ruled, in Richmond Newspapers v. Virginia (1980), that “the First Amendment can be read as protecting the right of everyone to attend trials,” and said in Chandler v. Florida (1981) that the presence of cameras in a criminal trial is not a denial of due process.

The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, former Attorney General Griffin Bell, and scores of columnists and policy analysts have endorsed cameras in the courtroom.


The National Center for Public Policy Research is a communications and research foundation supportive of a strong national defense and dedicated to providing free market solutions to today’s public policy problems. We believe that the principles of a free market, individual liberty and personal responsibility provide the greatest hope for meeting the challenges facing America in the 21st century.