Keeping Courts Open to Press

Among the most important safeguards of freedom we Americans enjoy is that of news media access to law enforcement agencies and the courts. With some regularity, efforts are made – sometimes with good motives – to erode that protection.

Earlier this week, Ohio County Circuit Judge James Mazzone was asked to close a pre-trial hearing to the press. It involved Craig Tyler Peacock, who is charged with murder in the August death of Wheeling Jesuit University student Kevin Figaniak.

Peacock’s attorney, Robert McCoid, asked Mazzone to close the hearing because pictures taken during Figaniak’s autopsy might be displayed. McCoid said making the photographs public could create prejudice among potential jurors in the case.

That “could jeopardize my client’s ability to get a fair trial,” McCoid told the judge.

That placed Mazzone in the position of weighing two constitutionally guaranteed liberties- of freedom of the press and the right to a fair trial.

Mazzone came down on the side of keeping the hearing open, for very good reasons. For one thing, the News-Register never would have published autopsy photographs. Mazzone knows that.

But he apparently agreed with Prosecuting Attorney Gail Kahle, who argued that, “The media represents the people, and the people have a right to know what is going on in this courtroom.”

Precisely. Before Americans declared our independence more than two centuries ago, our ancestors had plenty of experience with secret court proceedings, sometimes used by governments then to silence political opponents. That is why constitutional guarantees of fair court proceedings were established – and it is why press access to the courts was mandated, too.

In some countries, people can still “disappear.” That is, government officials can take them away, never to be heard from again. In local and state courts, that does not happen here – in part because of press scrutiny of the courts.

Judges such as Mazzone who insist on open court proceedings are correct, then, in coming down squarely in defense of the right of the people, through the press, to keep our eyes on the justice system.