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Judge threatens contempt over courthouse photos

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2014 11:00 a.m. CDT

IOWA CITY (AP) — The photo would have been splashed across the front page: Deputies transporting a small-town mayor to his first court appearance on charges of sexually abusing two girls. But the Fayette County Union declined Tuesday to publish the shot after a judge warned he would punish the weekly newspaper in northeastern Iowa and photographer Jerry Blue for doing so.

Judge Joel Dalrymple chided Blue for not obtaining advanced permission to take photos during Monday’s hearing for Oelwein Mayor Jason Manus and not wearing a badge identifying himself — key provisions of newly revised rules on media coverage of Iowa court cases. He warned that “any publication of photographs of either the (judge) or the defendant” taken Monday would result in Blue and the newspaper being held in contempt, which could mean fines or jail time.

“I’m heartbroken,” Blue said. “That’s a photo that deserves to be run.”

The incident is the latest dispute that has arisen since the new rules went into effect May 1. The changes modernize long-standing rules on cameras in the courtroom to address how and when journalists can use technologies such as laptops, cellphones and social media to report on proceedings. But they have caused some confusion and friction between court officials and news reporters.

One judge cited the rules in a June 30 order banning media outlets from publishing details of jury selection in a high-profile marijuana prosecution, saying they could only report what time it started and finished. The Quad-City Times filed a motion calling the limitation a misapplication of the rules and an unlawful prior restraint, and the judge backed off the order.

In the Seth Techel murder trial last month, a judicial branch official warned The Associated Press and other news outlets that tweeting during jury selection isn’t allowed. The provision is meant to prevent jurors from being photographed or identified — which none of the tweets had done — but is written broadly to bar all “live electronic coverage” of jury selection. In other words, reporters can take notes and write stories about jury selection, but cannot cover that part of the trial in real time on social media.

Some judges also have complained about media representatives not wearing the newly required credentials.

Kathleen Richardson, executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, which coordinates the expanded news media coverage program, said the changes are “going very smoothly” despite isolated problems. She is working with court officials and media coordinators to educate them on the rules, which are expected to be reviewed in 18 months.

Mickey Osterreicher, general counsel for the National Press Photographers Association, criticized the order, saying it “smacks of prior restraint.” He said photographers need to follow rules but judges should balance them against the public’s right to information.

Ironically, one change allows easier access to initial appearances such as Monday’s hearing for Manus following his arrest on sexual abuse charges.

Media outlets previously had to ask regional coordinators to make a written request to cover those hearings, which was difficult since they happen on short notice. The change allows reporters to get oral permission from the judge before the hearing.

Blue, the Fayette County Union’s longtime former editor, said he wasn’t familiar with the new rule and didn’t get permission to photograph the Manus hearing. He said he had previously taken photos in the courthouse hallway — where he captured the mayor in a jail jumpsuit coming out of an elevator with two deputies escorting him — without problem. But another rule allows photographers to snap their shots only in designated courthouse spaces — with prior permission.

After checking with Richardson and the Iowa Newspaper Association, Blue decided the photo wouldn’t run in Tuesday’s edition of the newspaper.

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