Media Expert: Alamance County Court Restrictions Are First Amendment Violation
Racial justice marches in the Alamance County town of Graham have put a spotlight on the county's legal system. There were marches over the summer and one on Oct. 31 that ended with arrests and police using pepper spray. In a separate incident, a white woman was accused of driving toward two 12-year-old Black girls. She ended up pleading guilty to misdemeanor charges.
This month, reporters were barred from two court proceedings centered on these events. The reason given: the coronavirus pandemic. Three news organizations have appealed to open access to the courts. Brooks Fuller is the director of the North Carolina Open Government Coalition. He joins us to talk about that case.
Lisa Worf: Good morning.
Brooks Fuller: Hi, Lisa.
Worf: The U.S. Supreme Court has held that the public has the right of access to criminal trials based on the First Amendment. So what explanation have judges given to these reporters and media outlets for turning them away?
Fuller: Well, thus far, there have not been very many explanations at all, and what explanations have been given have been rather unsatisfactory, and that is why a group of media and attorneys are suing to open up the courts.
Worf: In Alamance County, do you know if it's just the reporters who are barred from the courtroom or if other members of the public are barred, too?
Fuller: From my understanding, the judges in the Alamance County courts in both cases have limited the participation only to participants in the trials. So that's prosecutors, defense attorneys, their clients and witnesses -- people who are directly involved in the proceedings at hand, as well as court personnel. So they're limiting access to members of the public and to members of the press.
But the limits on the press is really important here because the press are our proxies. They stand in for us. And so press access here is an extension of public access.
Worf: Now, it's understandable to want to keep courtroom attendance at a minimum in a pandemic, but there are other ways, right, to make sure the public and media can observe the proceedings?
Fuller: Yeah, absolutely. There are a number of public bodies and courts around the state that are experimenting with virtual technology, livestreaming, opening up their rooms and their courtrooms to access and a lot of other ways that are very nimble. And they're able to meet this particular moment with the use of technology that we have at our fingertips.
Worf: Do you know in this case if there's been any attempt to do that?
Fuller: So far as I can tell, there has been no attempt on the court's behalf to make that sort of accommodation. This is me speaking and not litigants of the case, but if I were litigating this case or if I were one of the people involved as a plaintiff, that's the first thing I would want -- is just some type of open access that can accommodate as many North Carolinians as possible who are interested in these proceedings. That doesn't mean opening up the courtroom to full, unfettered physical access. It just means making some accommodations to meet where we are. And it sounds like that would be a phenomenal solution.
Worf: And what specifically is the coalition of these three news organizations asking the North Carolina Court of Appeals for?
Fuller: They're asking for the North Carolina Court of Appeals, which is a higher court than the district courts in our state, to come in and essentially tell the judge to allow some sort of access.
Worf: Whether that's video, whether that's in-person?
Fuller: Right. Exactly.
Worf: And what has been the relationship between Alamance County and the media before these cases?
Fuller: So leading up to these cases, going back, I guess, to the racial justice protests of the summer, one of the things that's been startling about Alamance County is that there have been public servants, elected and appointed public officials, members of police departments, that seem to have a relatively short fuse for public participation and public protests in the streets of Graham. And that extends to members of the press, but also members of the public. And I think the cases that we're seeing right now in the Alamance County courts are a microcosm of that energy and that tension between public servants and those that are seeking to hold them accountable.
Worf: Have you seen other instances in North Carolina where the pandemic has been given as a reason to limit public and media access to courts?
Fuller: I haven't kept track of every single one of the 100 counties in North Carolina, but from what I understand from reporters who I speak with pretty frequently is that this is abnormal. There's still access to courts in some of the larger counties like Wake and Mecklenburg. And I think I talked to someone who was doing work in Forsyth, in Guilford, and they've been able to go to hearings in some way. North Carolina courts have held hearings where you can sign in and view them via Zoom. And that's been an option. So we've seen court access flex with the times, but I haven't seen any other instances where courts have been completely shut down to the public.
Worf: That's Brooks Fuller, the director of the North Carolina Open Government Coalition. Thank you very much, Mr. Fuller.
Fuller: Thank you very much for having me, Lisa. I really appreciate it.