The Supreme Court yesterday abandoned an old taboo and ruled for the first time that the news media may be permitted to broadcast and photograph criminal trials.
Reconsidering prohibitions imposed 30 years ago when reporters and photographers turned courtrooms into raucous circuses, the court held unanimously that the presence of cameras and recording devices does not necessarily jeopardize the right to a fair trial.
Earlier Supreme Court decisions had been interpreted as bans on most such coverage. Yesterday, however, the juctices said that even when a defendant objects, the coverage may be allowed. The ruling is not a guaranteed media ticket for admission to trials because it applies only to state courts and allows them to include or exclude cameras and recording devices as they please.
Lawyers speculated, however, that the prohibition on such coverage in federal courts would be next to go and that the American Bar Assoication's resistance to electronic reporting from the courtroom would follow suit.
It was the second major "pro-press" opinion in seven months from a court and chief justice, Warren Burger, once denounced as anti-press. Last year, the justices struck down lower court rulings excluding the press and public from criminal trials.
About 30 states, including Maryland, are experimenting with carefully controlled electronic coverage. A challenge to Florida's experiment, which now becomes the approved model, prompted yesterday's decision.
Florida permits a camera operator and one television camera at trials. They are confined to a fixed location and may not use artificial lighting, microphones that intercept private conferences or bulky videotape machines. Radio broadcasters may plug tape recorders into existing courtroom recording equipment.
The Florida program was challenged by two Miami Beach men who were charged with conspiracy to burglarize a well-known local restaurant in July 1977. Television reporters were attracted to the trial because the defendants were policemen, caught when an amateur radio operator accidentally monitored them plotting the burglary over their police walkie-talkies.
About two minutes and 55 seconds of the trial was televised. The men appealed their conviction, however, on the grounds that the presence of the camera denied them a fair trial. The Supreme Court yesterday considered all the traditional arguments against such coverage: that it disrupts the courtroom makes showmen out of prosecutors and judges, intimidates witnesses and jurors and subjects defendants to the special punishment of "Yankee Stadium" mass audience trials.
By 8 to 0, the Supreme Court upheld the convictions yesterday in Chandler vs. Florida. Justice John Paul Stevens did not participate.
Burger, writing for six justices, said that there was little evidence to support any of the arguments against the presence of cameras or to substantiate the contention that televising and recording breach a fundamental right.
"An absolute constitutional ban on broadcast coverage of trials cannot be justified simply because there is a danger that, in some cases, prejudicial broadcast accounts of pretrial and trial events may impair the ability of jurors to decide the issue of guilt or innocence uninfluenced by extraneous matter," Burger wrote. "The risk of juror prejudice in some cases does not justify an absolute ban on news coverage of trials by the printed media; so also the risk of such prejudice does not warrant an absolute constitutional ban on all broadcast coverage."
Th etechnology of television, in particular, has changed since the Supreme Court in 1962 reversed a conviction of financier Billy Sol Estes because of prejudicial television coverage, Burger wrote. The "cumbersome equipment, cables, distracting lighting, numerous camera technicians, are less substantial factors today than they were at that time."
The initial ban on cameras in the courtroom was the result of an outraged reaction from the American Bar Association to the bedlam created by the press at the '30s' trial of Bruno Richard Hauptmann for the kidnapping of the Charles Lindbergh baby. The trial was heavily covered by the media. According to one description, it featured photographers leaping about like acrobats, witnesses tripping over cables and broadcasting equipment and a constant traffic of messengers to the media." Though the ABA refused in 1979 to change its policy, the issue will now inevitably come up again, association sources said yesterday.
In 1964, a Supreme Court plurality imposed a ban on electronic coverage. Though only four of the justices agreed on it, federal and state judicial officials treated the ban as law until the past few years, when telvision experiments began.
A court spokesman said he knew of no plans, in light of yesterday's opinion, to permit television coverage of oral arguments before the Supreme Court.