Supreme Court Decision Means No ‘Cameras in Hallways’

January 30, 2011 Updated: January 30, 2011

Journalist advocacy groups are expressing their disappointment in the Supreme Court’s recent decision upholding limits on the way journalists cover the courts.

In the so-called “cameras in hallways” case, two of the central issues being considered were whether media organizations should be able to film and record in areas of the courthouses outside the courtroom, and whether they could broadcast the official audio recordings of court proceedings.

The court denied media the right on both counts, saying the existing rules were a reasonable restriction to the freedom of expression rights in the Charter.

In 2004, the Quebec Supreme Court enacted new rules that limited media from reporting by electronic means from the court, leaving the press only one way of conveying information to the public—by text.

Microphones and cameras had no place in the courts, in the corridors outside the courts, or in areas where interviews with witnesses could be sought.

The CBC challenged those rules, and the Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ) was part of a media coalition that intervened in the case.

“We recognize the need to protect the court’s decorum and the fair administration of justice, but making courts as open and transparent as possible ultimately does just that,” said CAJ President Mary Agnes Welch.

“Instead of blanket rules, the Supreme Court could have advocated for more flexibility, such as publication bans tailored to a specific case.”

Arnold Amber, president of Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE), said the Jan. 28 decision represents a setback for the ability of the media to report on what takes place in the courts.

“Courts are public institutions and operate in Canada on the open court principle. But this ruling makes it more difficult for the public to find out what goes on inside those public institutions,” she said.

While the court recognized that the restrictions on the media’s ability to news gather is an infringement of free expression rights, it found that the infringement is “demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society,” according to a CJFE release.

The Court justified the limitation in order to ensure “the serenity of hearings,” claiming that the “fair administration of justice is necessarily dependent on maintaining order and decorum in and near courtrooms and on protecting the privacy of litigants appearing before the courts.”

Peter Jacobsen, a lawyer and member of CJFE’s board, said any decision that “restricts the right of the media to report and collect information with regards to judicial proceedings is very disappointing.”

“The view of the Supreme Court of Canada that journalist activities in the courthouse could somehow impinge on the judicial process seems to contradict the approach we take in public inquiries where witnesses are often called to testify in difficult situations as well.”