COLLEGE PARK (AP) — Several journalists and community organizers on Tuesday sued to challenge a Maryland law’s ban on broadcasting digital recordings of criminal court proceedings.
The federal lawsuit asks the court to declare that the law is “void for vagueness” and violates the plaintiffs’ First Amendment free speech rights.
Audio recordings of criminal trial proceedings are publicly available in Maryland, but a state law enacted in 1981 banned the broadcasting of any court proceedings for criminal trials. Anyone found in violation of the law can be held in contempt of court.
“Access to court proceedings plays a central role in ensuring that citizens can understand and ultimately shape how their justice system works,” the suit says.
The ban doesn’t apply to civil cases or criminal appeals. Plaintiffs’ attorney Nicolas Riley says that inconsistency seems to undermine “whatever purpose (the law) serves.”
“It doesn’t make any sense to us,” Riley said.
Maryland Judiciary spokeswoman Terri Charles said she can’t comment on pending litigation.
Plaintiffs include Baltimore-based journalists Brandon Soderberg and Baynard Woods, who are working on a book and documentary film about the Baltimore Police Department’s scandal-plagued Gun Trace Task Force. Open Justice Baltimore and Baltimore Action Legal, groups that advocate for improvements in the city’s criminal justice system, and Prince George’s County community organizer Qiana Johnson also are named as plaintiffs.
The suit asks the court to declare that the plaintiffs can’t be held in contempt of court for using lawfully obtained audio or video recordings of criminal court proceedings in online posts or in films.
The Baltimore Sun reported that Maryland court officials had considered holding “Serial” podcast producers in contempt of court for broadcasting audio recordings of the trial of Adnan Syed. The popular podcast and a more recent HBO documentary series chronicled Syed’s murder conviction.
Court officials ultimately accepted “Serial” podcast producer Sarah Koenig’s explanation that she received incorrect legal advice about the state’s rules on courtroom audio, the Sun reported.
The plaintiffs challenging the law are represented by attorneys from the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection, based at Georgetown University Law Center. The suit seeks unspecified attorneys’ fees and costs.
Two circuit court judges, one in Baltimore and another in Prince George’s County, are among the court officials named as defendants in the suit.
The suit says some trial courts in Maryland maintain both audio and video recordings of proceedings. State law doesn’t require the courts to publicly release video recordings, but court rules don’t preclude that, either.