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In our opinion: Efforts to remove electronic devices from courtrooms should be promptly squelched

Published: Monday, June 16 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

April 9, 2014 - Members of the media tour a courtroom in the new Salt Lake City Federal Courthouse.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

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Less than a year after a rule took effect allowing television cameras and electronic media devices into Utah courtrooms, there is a move to disallow use of such devices in domestic and family law cases. Such a change is not necessary and would erode transparency and public access to judicial proceedings.

A tentative rule change put into effect in April bars the use of electronic media devices in domestic relations cases including divorce proceedings, child custody cases and hearings on protective orders. It is predicated on concerns that such cases often involve private information that, if made public, could be harmful to parties in such cases.

But the year-old law granting media access, which was long sought by media organizations and groups advocating for open government, contains adequate protections against dissemination of information a judge may deem private. Pursuing a blanket banishment of electronic media coverage would set a precedent for future restrictions on public access to court proceedings.

The rule change does not bar news reporters or members of the public from attending cases involving domestic relations; it only disallows electronic video and audio recording devices. Restricting those devices doesn’t add to existing safeguards designed to protect vulnerable parties in domestic cases, including abused spouses and children involved in custody disputes. Judges may easily restrict documents and testimony from public disclosure in such cases, and they frequently exercise that prerogative.

The rule change may be repealed after a comment period that ends later this month. Should it remain in place, it could open the door to similar restrictions in other proceedings. Virtually all types of court cases are capable of delving into matters that individuals may wish to keep private.

In short, the change in administrative rules looks a lot like a solution in search of a problem.

The rules allowing access to electronic devices took effect last year after decades of lobbying by journalism organizations and institutions in favor of openness and transparency in the judiciary. At the time, members of the Utah Judicial Council who voted in favor of more access said the new rules would move Utah “into the next era” and align the state with the majority of state court systems which have long been open to cameras and other recording devices.

There is no compelling reason for the state to backtrack on that important and groundbreaking effort. The body of law in place since last year ensures a presumption of openness in our judicial system, and we see no credible reason that presumption should be reversed in the domestic court calendar.

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