Journalists, community advocates file lawsuit challenging Maryland's ban on broadcasting recordings of criminal trials

A group of journalists and community organizations filed a federal lawsuit challenging a Maryland law that prohibits the broadcasting of video or audio recordings from criminal trials, arguing the rule violates their First Amendment rights.

The lawsuit argued that the state has not and could not identify “a governmental interest sufficient to justify its blanket ban on broadcasting publicly available court recordings,” and, thus, that the law could not survive constitutional scrutiny.

“People who lawfully obtain copies of such recordings, therefore, cannot constitutionally be punished for disseminating them — including via broadcast,” said the suit filed Tuesday.

The plaintiffs include legal and prisoner advocacy groups as well as journalists.

“Although they hope to use Maryland’s court recordings for different purposes — some for journalistic ends, some for civic education, and some for political advocacy — all of them plan to use the recordings for a common goal: to promote democratic accountability within our criminal-justice system,” the lawsuit says of the plaintiffs.

Open Justice Baltimore and the Baltimore Action Legal Team want to use recordings to improve the transparency of the legal process in Baltimore, including publishing recordings on their websites, podcasts and on social media, playing them at meetings and using them for “know-your-rights” training sessions.

Qiana Johnson and Life After Release, a Prince George’s County organization dedicated to empowering people affected by the criminal justice system, want to broadcast the recordings online and at community meetings and events and provide them to the press.

And journalists Brandon Soderberg and Baynard Woods, formerly of Baltimore City Paper, want to incorporate audio and video recordings of trials in their upcoming documentary and other reporting on the Gun Trace Task Force, a corrupt, now-defunct Baltimore Police Department unit whose members were indicted on federal racketeering charges in 2017.

But the law prohibits “broadcast[ing] any criminal matter, including a trial, hearing, motion, or argument, that is held in trial court,” and violators can be held in contempt of court, as officials openly considered doing with “Serial” podcast creator Sarah Koenig. (The court took no action after Koenig said she was unaware of the rule and promised to stop violating it.)

The Maryland Judiciary does not comment on pending litigation, a spokeswoman said Tuesday.

Attorneys for the group wrote letters to state Administrative Judge W. Michel Pierson asking him to identify any “state interest[s] of the highest order,” — the burden established in a 1979 federal ruling — to justify not using the recordings. They also offered to identify the specific recordings they intend to use. The court did not respond to the letters, the attorneys said in the lawsuit.

“The ability for the public to hear — not only read about — what happens in court will bring some much-needed transparency to Baltimore,” Soderberg said in a statement.

The plaintiffs are represented by Nicolas Riley and Daniel Rice of the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy & Protection at the Georgetown University Law Center.

Rice also represented a separate journalist, freelancer Justine Barron, in a still-pending legal challenge to an April 24 ruling by Pierson that “no copies of audio recordings maintained by the Office of the Court Reporter shall be made available to persons other than parties to the relevant proceeding or counsel to the relevant proceeding.” Barron has said the order may have been triggered by her involvement with the “Undisclosed” podcast, which is using courtroom audio in its current season about the Keith Davis Jr. trial.

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