Arizona case demonstrates student journalists should be mindful of court recording rules

Experts are disputing an Arizona judge’s order to journalism students to delete audio recordings of a sentencing hearing.

The Arizona Capitol Times (with the help of two student journalists) reported that Pamela Gates, an associate judge at the Maricopa County Superior Court, halted court proceedings after learning that a group of Arizona State University journalism students were recording the proceedings. The judge ordered the recordings stopped and destroyed.

Arizona First Amendment lawyer Dan Barr told the Capitol Times that he believed the judge went too far in demanding the deletion of the recordings, though it’s unclear how and whether the judge had the authority to sanction the students at all.

David Bodney, an Arizona attorney specializing in media law, said Arizona’s current court rules for recordings allow camera and audio recording with advance notification. He would know, because he helped implement it.

“The most recent amendment to the rules were to increase camera coverage, not limit reporter’s rights,” Bodney says. “I would argue that an order to destroy the information obtained in an open courtroom would exceed the court’s lawful authority and be unconstitutional.”

Court spokesperson Karen Arras said in an email that Gates had reacted appropriately and the students were at fault for not notifying the court beforehand they would be recording.

“None of the students submitted a written or electronic request 48 hours in advance or notified the judge or the judge’s staff prior to using the devices … students were still able to take notes and write their stories. In addition, all of the Superior Court courtrooms are equipped with a digital video and audio recording system. So if the students’ notes were incomplete, they could have requested a digital recording of the hearing and one would have been provided to them for a nominal charge,” Arras said.

The Capitol Times report states the students’ recordings weren’t intended for publication. The main thing this case illustrates is that student journalists need to be aware and diligent when it comes to court rules in their communities.

It’s hard to make blanket statements on courtroom rules regarding recording. It’s often up to individual judges to make the rules at the local level, and state and federal courts also have their own rules. It can also vary on a case-by-case basis. The Society of Professional Journalists has a helpful guide on court rules, which often boil down to “it depends.”

Oftentimes orders not to record in courtrooms come on the basis of maintaining privacy, decorum or so as to not cause a distraction. Journalists looking to record in courtrooms have the ability to challenge these orders, but oftentimes the rules are the rules.

Whether a judge can order journalists to delete their recordings as a penalty, however, is a different matter, one that has yet to be clearly established by the courts.