BALTIMORE (CN) – Journalists and court-transparency activists filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday challenging a Maryland law that prohibits the rebroadcast of audio recordings of criminal proceedings.
While people may obtain audio recordings of virtually any criminal proceeding under Maryland court rules, a 1981 state law prohibits the recordings from being shared with the broader public.
“This regime violates the Constitution’s dual guarantees of freedom of speech and freedom of the press,” according to the complaint filed by journalists Brandon Soderberg and Baynard Woods, activist Quiana Johnson and the nonprofits Open Justice Baltimore and Baltimore Action Legal Team. They are represented by Adam Holofcener of Maryland Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts, and Nicolas Y. Riley and Daniel B. Rice of the Georgetown Law Center’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection.
Soderberg and Woods are working on a book and documentary film about the Baltimore Police Gun Trace Task Force, a disgraced squad of armed robbers with badges. Open Justice Baltimore and Baltimore Action Legal Team seek to improve transparency in the legal system and police department. Johnson is a Prince George’s County activist for police and court transparency and aids in the defense of criminal defendants.
The plaintiffs say Maryland is the only state that provides copies of court recordings but prohibits their recipients from rebroadcasting them. Officials “have failed to identify any harms that might result” from use of the material, the plaintiffs say, and refused to respond to reporters’ queries.
Access to court records varies widely from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, and from one kind of proceeding to another.
“It’s hard to find a good 50-state survey,” Riley, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, said in a phone interview. “Sometimes the rules vary from proceeding to proceeding, and that’s true in Maryland as well. During the Adnan Sayed argument in the [Maryland] Court of Appeals, you could stream arguments directly from the court website itself.”
The Maryland law against rebroadcast applies broadly to criminal cases, but not appellate cases or civil trials. “The statute would prohibit the broadcast of jury selection in a criminal trial but permit the broadcast of a subsequent habeas corpus proceeding challenging the jury selection process in that same trial,” the plaintiffs say in their complaint.
The Baltimore City’s chief administrative judge publicly admonished the producers of the “Serial” podcast for using audio obtained from the court on the show about the Sayed case and, reportedly, stopped providing copies of audio recordings shortly after that. Another journalist, Justine Barron, filed suit last month to force the court to resume providing audio recordings to her.
“To the best of my knowledge,” Soderberg said in an email, “what Barron’s lawsuit does is asks her to gain access to recordings because now currently, you cannot obtain or purchase audio from the court anymore. What our lawsuit does is argue that with materials we already have obtained, the court cannot, on First Amendment grounds, say we cannot broadcast that.”
The plaintiffs want a judge to find Maryland’s prohibition on rebroadcasting of recorded proceedings unconstitutional, and to declare the plaintiffs cannot be held in contempt or otherwise sanctioned for rebroadcasting any recordings they have or will obtain.