A former Congressional candidate from Washington state landed in the slammer last week when he attempted to live-stream the trial of friend. While libertarian activist Gavin Seim claims the judge’s refusal to allow his camera in the courtroom violated his liberties, a prominent First Amendment attorney was not so quick to agree.
“A trial is not a rock concert,” said Mickey Osterreicher, general counsel for the National Photographers Press Association. “You can’t just have people running around the courtroom with cameras.”
According to Osterreicher, the Seim incident, which by all accounts devolved into a major fracas in a house of justice, was not a pure cameras-in-the-courtroom case due to the political nature of the filming and the level of distraction.
“What I’m seeing here is somebody who was apparently intent on disruption,” Osterreicher said in a phone interview. “[As a court room photographer] you basically want to be invisible. You are not a distraction to the judge, jury, witnesses or anybody else.”
Seim has a history of provocation in the name of civil rights, having posted dozens of You Tube videos of himself confronting and challenging law enforcement. He arrived at a Douglas County courtroom on Jan. 15 with a crew of supporters for the trial of Tavis T. Shasteen, nineteen-year-old who refused to give his license during a traffic stop – a libertarian assertion of individual rights.
Seim, who has not responded to a PINAC request for interview, states on his website that he asked permission to film the court proceeding from the judge, in accordance with Washington law, which presumes open access unless the judge explicitly denies it. However, judges have discretion in the matter, and if at any point they find recording to be distracting or in violation of the fairness and order of the proceeding, they may ban the camera orally or in writing.
The details of the altercation between Seim’s camp and the authorities vary by account – with Douglas County law enforcement claiming Seim, who is not a lawyer, was trying to represent the defendant. Authorities also claim Seim yelled at the judge and resisted arrest. Seim claims on his website – callmegav.com – that the allegations are untrue, and that he simply wanted to film the trial and to support the defendant.
The morning dawned like no jury trial you have seen. Security was in the parking lot questioning everyone and asking if they were jurors, so they could usher them away. Police were everywhere and all hands were on deck. But on Jan 15th, a small band of patriots stood up to them and to the court like America has never seen.
It happened fast. I had run out to the car for a power cord and the moment I was out, they sprang. When I ran back into the courtroom it was in complete chaos. Douglas county sheriff’s deputies where dragging Nathan, body slamming anyone in their path and hauling him out. — Patriots were blocking the doors as police dragged Nathan out, kidnapping him from the courtroom at special request from the judge before she even entered the chambers. He had done nothing illegal and was literally sitting quietly in a chair waiting for things to start. But they knew that he, like me, had been helping Tell, as a friend, get ready for the big day.
I rushed in and addressed Judge Judith L. McCauley, who had just entered, calling her out on what was happening. They tackled and arrested me, hauling me off. There’s more, but that will be clear in the video. Off I went to jail!
The actual video of the arrest was public earlier this week from his Ustream account, but the audio had cut off as soon as they began making arrests. The video has since been made private by Seim and is nowhere to be found on the internet.
Osterreicher believes the political nature of Seim’s presence may have been enough distraction to merit a camera shutdown. It was only a month earlier where he walked into the same courthouse and possibly the same courtroom and exchanged words with the marshal after the marshal told him “to leave the attitude outside or leave my courtroom,” as you can see in the video below.
“A trial is meant to be open to public,” Osterreicher said. “But on the other hand, the reason for being in a court is to guarantee the Sixth Amendment right to fair trial. That is paramount to a court proceeding. Anything that disrupts and distracts from that can be a problem.”
Cameras in the courtroom have the potential to turn a serious proceeding into a veritable three-ring circus. In recent times, the OJ Simpson murder trial illustrated this point. In 1935, the Lindbergh kidnapping case had crazed spectators clamoring to purchase ringside tickets and 200 journalists crammed into a small courtroom. The sensationalism of the Lindbergh case resulted in cameras being completely banished from courtrooms until the 1950s.
Even now, cameras in courtrooms are highly regulated and in many cases – such as federal courts – uniformly disallowed. Courts are a unique environment, where the judge has discretion and the Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial may very well trump the First Amendment right to free speech.
“In public everybody has the right to record and photograph,” Osterreicher said. “A courtroom is not the same as a street or park.”
Seim faces charges of interfering with a court, disorderly conduct and contempt of court. His arrest report lists Feb. 3 as his next court date. No word on whether he will attend with camera in hand.
Below are videos of his altercation with the court marshal from last month as well as a video where he pulled a cop over, which has received almost 3 million views so far, as well as a video where he explains his political views.
Osterreicher spent decades as a photojournalist before he became an attorney. He has written extensively on the issue of cameras in the courtroom as well as testified before Congress in support of cameras in the courtroom. View his testimony on this C-Span video.
UPDATE: Seim was scheduled to speak to PINAC for an interview today, but changed his mind after reading this article, which he believed to be biased against him.
Below are screenshots of the conversation.
We can assure you that we have no personal animosity against Seim, but it is important for us to provide our readers with the most accurate information regarding recording in a courtroom so they won’t find themselves facing unnecessary criminal charges.
We have also obtained the arrest report, which you can read here, and are in the process of obtaining the surveillance video from the courtroom. We are also waiting for Seim to make his video public. CM