In preparing for his upcoming trial, PINAC correspondent and government corruption activist Michale Hoffman tried to rally widespread interest in the misdemeanor trespassing case that followed his one-man protest near a Jacksonville airport last August.
“I called the mainstream media,” he said. “But they weren’t interested.”
So when Duval County Judge Brent Shore applied an order restricting media access in cases of “extraordinary public interest” to Hoffman’s sparsely attended court proceedings, he questioned the rationale.
“Obviously my case does not meet that standard,” Hoffman said. “I’d be curious if anyone else has to comply with these rules.”
The administrative order, which can be read here, erects hurdles for “new media” and could ultimately block PINAC from recording the trial of its own correspondent. If the heightened restrictions are in any way motivated by the authority-challenging content of PINAC and Hoffman’s reporting, they could constitute a violation of the news organization’s First Amendment protections.
And that is a challenge publisher Carlos Miller would welcome along with PINAC’s attorney on the case, Eric Friday, who has represented PINAC reporter Jeff Gray in the past.
But Miller agreed to the hurdles because it was not that difficult to prove the site would be able to pass the required three-prong legitimacy test: proof of independent editorial control, coverage of judicial matters for more than six months prior and original news content. Under Friday’s advisement, Miller agreed that it would be best meet the court’s initial request to bolster its argument in case it goes any further.
Earlier today, Hoffman attended a hearing with his attorney to determine a date for jury selection, which will take place March 23, meaning the trial should commence that day if not the following.
And Friday is in the process of submitting three documents compiled by Miller to prove that the news site more than meets the court’s requirements to be considered new media. It will now be taken under judicial review.
But it’s still questionable why the court would place these restrictions in the first place, a routine trespassing charge that no media company other than PINAC has an interest in.
“Our case isn’t of extraordinary public interest, but we still have to jump through hoops,” Friday said.
The administrative order was adopted in 2013, in the wake of the Trayvon Martin case, and sets separate standards for traditional media and the “new” or online media. The restrictions were designed to apply only in “cases of extraordinary public interest that draw national, sometimes international, public interest to proceedings.”
In other words, these rules are intended to apply in high wattage cases that have fly-by-night bloggers crawling out of the woodwork, jockeying for limited space in the courtroom. Not misdemeanor cases that can’t register a mention in any of the local Jacksonville news stations or sites.
“Any restrictions must be content neutral,” said Mickey Osterreicher, general counsel for the National Press Photographers Association. “It shouldn’t matter what the message [of the news organization] is, if you’re in favor of it or not in favor.”
Typically, a 48-hour notice of intent to record is the standard requirement in Duval County, and there is no distinction between new and traditional media.
It is unclear why Hoffman’s case has been designated as high profile.
“This is not of extraordinary public interest,” Osterreicher said. “It’s a trespass case. Applying the standard of review, I would question if they did it to make it more difficult.”
Hoffman put it more bluntly, suspecting retaliation.
“It’s apparent they are trying to deny me what I have a right to,” he said. “They are trying to punish me. It’s very evident.”
Hoffman added that there are two assistant district attorneys handling his misdemeanor case, and claims the state has spent $50,000 prosecuting him.
Both Hoffman and PINAC have challenged government authority in the name of exposing corruption and protecting Constitutional rights, a stance that has not endeared them to law enforcement officials. Hoffman, who worked at a Maryland correctional facility for two-and-a-half years before launching a campaign against government corruption, runs a You Tube channel – F.T.G. – which stands for Fuck the Government. He is also embroiled with a fight with the District Attorney’s Office regarding the Brady Bill.
Hoffman’s trespassing charge stems from an August 2014 protest, in which Hoffman stood alongside a road a half-mile from the Jacksonville airport holding signs reading: “Police State,” “Liars Investigating Liars,” “F??K THE TSA,” and “IRS = Terrorist.”
On Hoffman’s first court date, PINAC correspondent Thomas Covenant, aka Epic Old Guy, videoed the proceedings.
According to Hoffman, Covenant sat quietly in the back of the room, with a small camera set up and did not create a disturbance.
“There were no lights, no wires, no nothing,” Hoffman said. “I understand we can’t have a circus that makes sense. That is not the intent of Thomas or myself.”
After the first videoed proceeding in Hoffman’s case, the judge invoked the heightened restrictions. PINAC has not videoed in the case since, mainly because it has been waiting for the trial.
Camera access is courtrooms is not absolute. The defendant’s right to receive a fair trial is paramount, and if media access is disruptive or distracting the judge may terminate access.
Earlier this month, Washington libertarian Gavin Seim’s attempt to record a friend’s trial erupted into major chaos, ending in the arrest of himself and his father.
Seim states on his website that he had requested to record the trial, but the judge never responded.
PINAC chose to comply with the court’s requirements instead of simply showing up with cameras in order to focus on Hoffman’s case and not create a scenario that would distract from the trial. The main goal is for him to be acquitted, then file a lawsuit for a violation of his Constitutional rights.
But if the request is denied, PINAC is prepared to show up to the trial with a camera, a tripod and a copy of the Florida law that makes it legal to record trials unless the judge can make a strong argument why the trial should not be recorded.
Hoffman’s attorney believes the matter will be resolved without having to resort to that.
“We are in the process of working with the court to allow equal access to include new media,” Friday said. “We are hopeful that this will be resolved so that Michale Hoffman’s case can be reported on with cameras so that the public can have full information on the justice system.”
As traditional media continues its financial death spiral, and as new media continues to flourish, courtrooms have had to adapt, some better than others. In fact, shield laws and journalistic privileges have expanded in many states to accommodate new media and bloggers.
Osterriecher also believes PINAC will eventually gain camera access in the Hoffman case.
“I would hope they do,” he said. “Given the fact that they cover issues that pertain to people’s right to photography on a daily basis, are growing in coverage and have more readers than some small or medium-sized newspapers I cannot imagine how the court could deny them.”
Hoffman supports unfettered access to video court proceedings and believes courts need to change with the times.
“This is the Twenty-First Century,” he said. “You got a camera and a mouth, you are the media.”
Check out the video of his arrest below.