TV or not TV

Judge says she will rule this week on allowing coverage of terrorist trial

Court TV and C-SPAN got their own day in court last week, but they'll have to wait until this week to find out whether federal Judge Leonie Brinkema will allow cameras into her courtroom to cover the trial of alleged terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui.

"What gavel-to-gavel television coverage does is allow people who want to see the whole thing ... the ability to do so. They don't have that ability if you are relying solely on secondhand reports of people who are in the courtroom," argued Lee Levine, an attorney representing Court TV.

Court TV and C-SPAN want to offer full coverage of Moussaoui's trial, which is scheduled to begin Oct. 14. Also backing the attempt to open the court are ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, the Radio-Television News Directors Association and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. Court TV chief executive Henry Schleiff has been popping up on all-news outlets arguing that Americans have an overwhelming interest in the terrorist events and that, in essence, the entire nation is a victim of sorts.

The U.S. government is opposed. Witnesses' awareness of being on television "has a possibility of affecting the witnesses' testimony, has a possibility of affecting the jurors, has a possibility of affecting everyone in the courtroom," said attorney Liza Collery, representing the Department of Justice. "Technological changes that make cameras unobtrusive do not respond to that very legitimate concern."

The Justice Department also worries that the identities of witnesses and other trial participants will be compromised should their pictures be broadcast and circulated on the Internet.

Brinkema was sympathetic. Still, she pointed out that the use of minuscule cameras means that technology does not necessarily have to be intrusive. Collery said the size of the cameras involved would not cause witnesses to forget that they were being televised.

Court TV agreed security is an important concern. Levine suggested ways to answer those concerns while still allowing electronic coverage. He said that the judge could place restrictions on the broadcast or that the faces of witnesses could be blocked out.

"It would seem to me, however," Levine said, "that there are numbers of witnesses and large portions of the proceeding for which television coverage would serve a valuable purpose that does not involve terrorism risks: opening and closing statements, and witnesses who do not wish or do not believe that their faces need to be obscured."

Brinkema will not release a decision until Tuesday at the earliest, she told the court.

"As you all recognize, you are asking the court to declare unconstitutional a federal rule of criminal procedure that has been enacted by the Judicial Conference of the United States, approved by the Supreme Court and the United States Congress," Brinkema said. "One does not take that job lightly. So I am going to think about this."