Cameras in the Courtroom

Cameras in the Courtroom Checklist

The set of rules affecting courtroom photography was issued by the state Supreme Court in 1993.  It sets general rules for judges and journalists related to cameras in the courtroom. 

Photographers must remember that court coverage is different from most other assignments. Decorum and protocol are important.

Under the rules, photography is permitted in all state courts including the S.C. Supreme Court, S.C. Court of Appeals, Circuit Courts, Family Courts, Probate Courts, Master-in-Equity Courts, Municipal Courts and Magistrate Courts. Federal courts are not included, and do not permit cameras or recorders.

Here are the highlights:

Attire: “Business attire.” Jeans, T-shirts and sneakers are unacceptable. Check with the judge if you’re unsure, or risk being kept out.

Camera positions: There can be one or two, if the judge approves. Both positions should be determined in advance in consultation with the presiding judge. One will be the primary position and will provide the best shots. One still and one video camera may be allowed in each spot.

Coming and going: Photographers must not be disruptive. Cameras can be set up only during a recess. Photographers should ask the presiding judge whether they can come and go during the session.

Contempt: News photographers and reporters can be expelled or cited for contempt if they do not follow the rules and observe decorum.

Family courts: Like other courts, these are open to the public and news media. However, both can be excluded if the judge sees fit. Be prepared to tell the judge why there is a compelling public interest in covering a given proceeding.

Juries and jury selection: Photography of jury selection is against the rules. Juries, once chosen, cannot be shot directly but may be in the background when panning or when cameras are focused on an attorney, witness or exhibit.

Juveniles: State law prohibits identifying them, but that law is probably an unconstitutional “prior restraint.” Check with your news organization’s attorney for guidance.

Lights: All photography must be done with available light. No strobes or camera lights are permitted.

Motor drives: Don’t use one unless it’s very quiet. Still photographers may need to have gear approved in advance by the presiding judge.

Pooling: If more than one print or more than one TV station requests coverage, then there will likely be pooling. The exception would be when two request coverage and agree to take pictures from the primary and secondary camera positions. Pooling disagreements must be decided by the media, not by judges.

Questions: Requests for assistance should be directed to the statewide media coordinators. For newspapers: SCPA Co-Executive Director Jen Madden. For broadcast: SCBA Executive Director Margaret Wallace

Requesting coverage: Most judges want it in writing. Here is the request form. Requests must be made as far in advance as possible.

Sound: This has to be arranged in advance with the judge in charge of each individual courtroom. Do not eavesdrop or record private conversations between attorneys and clients or between counsel and the presiding judge.

Smart phones for recording: Using a smartphone to record audio and/or take video or photos may be permitted by the judge with advanced permission.  

Tape recorders: Advanced permission is required, but hand-held tape recorders and are permitted (with the above eavesdropping restrictions). 

Witnesses: Some witnesses are off-limits for photography. Rape and child abuse victims, undercover officers and informants come under this heading. Judges will announce when pictures of such witnesses are prohibited. Cameramen must listen for instructions and abide by them.

In addition to this checklist, photographers should read Rule 605 carefully. It is located below. Call SCPA if you have questions: (803) 750-9561.

More info about cameras in the courtroom

Rule 605

Read the S.C. Judicial Branch's rules on broadcasting, televising, recording or photographing court proceedings