Five months after reminding Charlotte news executives about ground rules for cameras in the Mecklenburg County Courthouse, Superior Court Judge Richard Boner has banned photographers indefinitely after another breach of protocols.
Charles Keller Jr., community access administrator for the courthouse, notified Charlotte media outlets Tuesday that any requests for photography inside the courthouse will be summarily denied until further notice because of a violation Friday, when news cameras from five TV stations and the Observer filmed in the hallway.
City Attorney Bob Hagemann was filmed when he walked out of Judge Robert Ervin’s courtroom after a hearing about the regional airport commission. A group of reporters and photographers were gathered in the hallway and asked for an interview, Hagemann said.
“I didn’t give it a thought,” he said. “I wasn’t aware of the rule.”
But since 1992, the judicial district has banned photography in hallways and other public spaces in the courthouse unless permission is specifically given. In May, an NBC Charlotte journalist shot a cellphone picture and Tweeted it to followers outside the courtroom where Carolina Panther Greg Hardy had just appeared on a domestic-abuse charge.
This led to a meeting between Boner, senior resident judge, and representatives of Charlotte media outlets in which courtroom photography policies were reiterated.
“Despite these efforts, the rules continue to be flouted,” Keller told news executives in his notification Tuesday.
Keller said that random photography in the courthouse is not allowed for a variety of reasons, including to protect the identity of witnesses, jurors and others.
Keller said photographers involved in recording the impromptu press conference were Rob McMannen of Time Warner Cable News, Todd Sumlin of the Observer, Dan Yesenosky of WCNC (Channel 36), Bronson Hill of WCCB (Channel 18), Josh Stender of WSOC (Channel 9) and Mike Rode of WBTV (Channel 3).
Rules still broken
Several news directors said that after the May meeting with Boner, they went over the photography rules with staff members, yet the hallway interview still occurred.
“I’m a little upset about that and I’m not upset at the court because the court has its rules,” said Dennis Milligan of WBTV. “I understand the judge’s ruling and we’ll have to live with it until we can establish a level of trust with the judges again.”
Julie Szulczewski, news director of WSOC, said courthouse photography rules were provided to her staff after the May meeting and now the station will have to live with the ban. “It’s in the judge’s purview to do that,” she said. “I think all of us violated it. We should know better.”
At WCNC, acting news director Ron Bilek said that he wasn’t sure what to do about the video ban, but that Boner had made the restrictions clear. “I would accept this because of the issues that have gone on, and the judge has been really fair about setting down the guidelines and being fair about what he expected,” Bilek said.
In looking into the violation, Bilek said he was told by staffers that everyone figured it was OK to film because everyone else was. “It was the group mentality – everybody was shooting, so why wouldn’t I shoot?”
Jim Newman, news director for the Time Warner Cable News channel, said he arrived at a similar conclusion.
“I think there was some thought that because there were no jurors present and it was not a criminal case it was all right, but it wasn’t,” he said. “That is a very strict rule in Mecklenburg County and we went against it.”
Observer editor Rick Thames said that when Hagemann began talking to reporters, “the Observer photographer, as well as all the other media, did what comes naturally when someone appears to start a press conference. He raised his camera.”
Ban will last months
Boner, who wrote for the Salisbury Post and Durham Morning Herald after getting a journalism degree from UNC Chapel Hill, said he believes strongly in the public’s right to know.
“I also believe in the orderly administration of justice,” he said Tuesday. When he met with news executives in May, he said, he stressed the rule about photography in hallways.
“We already had this one episode,” he said. “I said if we have another, I’m going to pull the plug on all of you.”
On Tuesday he said he intended to keep it pulled for the rest of his judicial career. He retires at the end of December and if W. Robert Bell is re-elected, he will take over as senior resident judge.
“Bob can do what he wants to,” Boner said. “It’s going to be in effect until I leave.”