Throughout history, courts have attempted to balance free speech and press with the constitutionally guaranteed rights of due process and a fair trial. While the courts had lifted the ban on cameras in court and begun to televise trials in the 1960s, the Supreme Court favored the right to a fair trial, often overturning convictions to protect defendants.
The 1970s brought about technological developments, which made cameras far less obtrusive and created a demand for greater media access to trials. Due to these improvements, the Committee on Fair Trial-Free Press encouraged the American Bar Association to revise its strict standards. In 1978, the committee approved a resolution to allow the highest court of each state to set its own guidelines for radio, television and photographic coverage.
According to the article “Cameras in Court,” “by 1980, 19 states permitted coverage of trial and appellate courts, three permitted coverage of trial courts only, six permitted coverage of appellate courts only and 12 others were considering the issue.”
In 1981, the Florida Supreme Court proposed a revised Canon after appellants in Chandler v. Florida were convicted of burglary despite objections that media attention denied them a fair and impartial trial. Canon 3a (7) of the Florida Code of Judicial Conduct allows electronic media and still photography coverage of judicial proceedings, subject to the control of the presiding judge and the obligation to protect the rights of the accused in a criminal trial.
According to Chandler v. Florida, “in July 1977, the appellants were charged with conspiracy to commit burglary, grand larceny and possession of a burglary tool.” The appellants were policemen, and an amateur radio operator, by chance, overheard and recorded conversations between the officers over their walkie-talkies during the burglary. Despite media attention, the jury was not sequestered; rather, they were instructed not to watch or read anything about the case in the news. A total of 2 minutes and 55 seconds of the trial was actually broadcast, which depicted the prosecution only. The jury returned a guilty verdict on all counts.
Still, the courts found no evidence that the presence of cameras deprived the appellants of an impartial jury or affected the fairness of the trial. The case also held that Estes v. Texas did not support an absolute constitutional ban on coverage of criminal trials, as the due process clause does not prohibit media coverage of judicial proceedings.
As a result, due to advances in technology and unobtrusive camera coverage, the Supreme Court ruled that states could provide access to the media regardless of whether defendants wanted it.
And the fight for televised trials began.