On Wednesday morning, in a Connecticut superior court just 20 minutes from Newtown, where 26 people were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School, attorneys for the families of shooting victims rested their case against the right-wing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.
The jury was dismissed for the day and exited the courtroom — but the cameras kept rolling. Throughout the weeks-long trial, which began in September, cameras in the court have been permitted to both record and live-stream the trial for anyone to see.
I’ve watched on YouTube as lawyers fervidly argued their case, were summoned by the judge to private side-bar discussions, and voiced concern in off-the-record sessions about a great number of issues.
The level of transparency offered in the case has been exemplary, allowing the public to watch the American justice system at work. And, because cameras have been permitted, news organizations have been able to better convey to those who might not have tuned in what has transpired in court, bringing heightened clarity into the case.
Meanwhile, at another high-profile trial, one taking place in our nation’s capital, the opposite has been true.
The public and news organizations have had remarkably little access to remotely follow a courtroom in which a historic seditious conspiracy case is being brought by the US government against five alleged members of the far-right Oath Keepers militia.
There are no live-streams posted to YouTube. There are no video recordings of the proceedings provided to news organizations at the end of the day. There are no phone lines to listen in on. In this court there is only one overflow room and one media room in which a limited number of reporters and members of the public can sit and watch the proceedings on a television screen.
This archaic method of executing justice is not just limited to this particular federal trial; it’s largely the way it’s handled at the federal level.
“These are activities that are being funded by taxpayer dollars that are impacting the lives of all Americans in various ways, and modern technology affords us the opportunity to participate in some way — watching it live, listening to it live,” Gabe Roth, the executive director of Fix the Court, a non-profit group that advocates for more open and accountable courts, told me by phone.
“And yet, it is the antiquated views of the federal judiciary that narrows that access in a way that doesn’t comport with a modern understanding of government action,” Roth added, noting that federal government activities, such as Congressional hearings, are live-streamed for the public.
There are, of course, some reasonable arguments against allowing cameras to roll inside federal court. Most convincing, perhaps, is that it could hinder the justice system by morphing courtrooms into reality-television sets.
But, on the other hand, by not allowing the masses to see what is transpiring inside court, the vacuum of information threatens to create an environment in which misinformation and conspiracy theories thrive. And, more persuasively, raises the question of why a select few members of the public and media can be stuffed into an overflow room to see a trial in action, but that it can’t be opened up for others with the use of modern technology.
“It’s really weird,” Roth said. “It’s all about control. The federal judiciary is very careful about how they control their message and how they control their image.”
Lisa Zycherman, deputy legal director for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which has argued for increased transparency in courtrooms, told me that she believes the many reasons put forth by the federal judiciary to forbid courtroom cameras don’t hold much water. But, she said, with time the courts will likely evolve.
“Frankly, I am an optimist,” Zycherman said. “I have to believe with time and lack of technological impediments that things will change.”
A version of this article first appeared in the “Reliable Sources” newsletter. You can sign up for free right here.