A North Florida judge who has been doing all he can to keep PINAC from recording the trial of one of our correspondents – ignoring a 1979 state supreme court ruling that allows news cameras in the courtroom – has issued an order forbidding PINAC from recording anywhere outside the Jacksonville courthouse, including public sidewalks, claiming it would pose a “security threat to the Courthouse and a threat to the integrity of the judicial system.”
But anybody can see that the biggest threat to the integrity of the judicial system is Chief Circuit Judge Mark Mahon himself, an “interim” chief judge sensitive to criticism who issued his order Wednesday, threatening to have anybody arrested who dares video record “secure locations on the Duval County Courthouse grounds” – areas that can be clearly seen from anywhere in the world through a computer with a few clicks on Google Street View as you can see in the screenshots below.
In fact, earlier today, as you can see in one of the videos below, Mahon made good on his promise when Jacksonville sheriff’s officers threatened to arrest PINAC reporters Jeff Gray and Thomas Covenant for video recording from a public sidewalk across the street from the courthouse, an area not even listed in the judge’s restricted areas.
Why is the judge going through all this trouble to keep our cameras away from the courtroom and now the courthouse, insisting we are not media, when our online readership numbers rival mainstream media companies in Jacksonville?
One possible reason is because the judge presiding over the trial of PINAC correspondent Michale Hoffman has forbidden him from using the First Amendment as a defense in his trial, which is scheduled for Monday.
That, of course, places Hoffman at a huge disadvantage considering he was arrested last year while holding up anti-TSA signs on the side of a public road leading to Jacksonville International Airport.
Granting a motion from the prosecutor, Duval County Judge Brent Shore said he will also refuse to allow Hoffman’s attorney to inform the jury that his client was standing on public property while protesting against the TSA when he was arrested for trespassing.
In other words, it appears they are purposely keeping our cameras away so they can secure themselves a conviction without having to worry about that pesky Constitution that guarantees us the right to a fair trial.
PINAC’s attorney, Eric Friday, who is also representing Hoffman, filed an emergency petition Monday, which you can read here, asking the First District Court of Appeal to issue a stay in Hoffman’s trial, postponing it indefinitely while the appellate court decides whether or not we have the right to record the trial.
Considering the same district court sided with the Florida Times-Union in a similar case last year against the same circuit court, the odds were on our side.
Or so we thought.
The district court ended up rejecting our appeal once again, telling us we need to comply with every requirement from the circuit court before we can be granted the right to record the trial, even though that right has already been granted by the supreme court in 1979.
And even though they are requiring us to fill out a tedious form that no other news agency that has recorded in the courtroom has been required to fill out.
This, we are learning, is what they call Southern Justice.
Friday had petitioned the district court back in April but the court kicked it back down to the circuit court, which is administered by Mahon, who as chief judge, also administers the county courts that make up the Fourth Circuit.
In remanding our appeal to the lower court, the district court had assigned the case to Circuit Judge Virginia Norton. But Mahon did not approve of that, so he transferred the case to Circuit Judge Robert Foster, apparently one of his cronies, who quickly denied our appeal.
We figured that by refiling our appeal, which required us to pay an additional $300, the district court would take our case to determine whether or not PINAC has the right to record Hoffman’s trial. We also were prepared to take the case to the state supreme court, which determined in 1979 that “electronic media shall be permitted access to the courtrooms of the State of Florida to cover and report judicial proceedings.”
Considering many judges in Florida recognize the supreme court ruling allowing cameras in the courtrooms, at least in Miami which has long been known to be the most corrupt city in the state, we should not have to go through all these hurdles.
But Chief Judge Mahon apparently has a point to prove because it was only after he took over as chief judge in January that we started having problems. Prior to that, PINAC reporter Thomas Covenant (Epic Old Guy) was allowed to video record Hoffman’s initial proceedings as you can read in the appendix to our latest petition.
Mahon, who was named Chief Judge of the Jacksonville Fourth Judicial Circuit last August to replace Judge Donald Moran, who retired in December, is technically “interim chief judge” until the end of this month, which was when Moran’s term would have ended had he not retired at the end of last year.
But Mahon is expected to be elected to a two-year term through a secret ballot collected from more than 50 circuit and county judges, according to the Florida Times-Union.
That is, if his latest antics don’t embarrass the other judges to the point where they end up voting against him. But it doesn’t seem they are all that concerned.
Before he was appointed to the Fourth Circuit by former Florida Governor Charlie Crist in 2007, Mahon served seven years as a state representative.
And before that, he was chairman of the Jacksonville Transportation Authority, a government agency affiliated with the Jacksonville Aviation Authority, the government agency whose cops arrested Hoffman last August for trespassing on a public roadway leading to the city’s international airport.
You’ve heard of six degrees of separation? Well, here we have two.
Now as chief judge, a position that has obviously gone to his head, he apparently believes he has the authority to determine who qualifies as media and who does not, requiring PINAC to jump through an obstacle course of hoops of his own design, which he keeps switching up on us when we try to comply.
First, he required us to prove we were “new media” as defined by a previous Fourth Circuit order, stating we needed to prove we have covered judicial proceedings six months prior to applying for permission to cover judicial proceedings, which as oxymoronic as it sounds, we were able to prove.
When that failed to disqualify us, he then required us to apply for court-issued credentials through the circuit court’s media committee. But the media committee told us court-issued credentials are only necessary during high-profile trials where hordes of reporters are fighting for access to cover the trial.
At the time, no news company other than PINAC was interested in covering Hoffman’s misdemeanor trespassing trial, so we were under no obligation to obtain the court-issued credentials.
However, when Duval County Brent Shore learned we did not need credentials, he insisted we still needed to prove we are media by demonstrating PINAC receives more than “1,000 hits a month“, which is something we easily do in less than an hour on a decent day.
But just to complicate things, we were then informed that we needed to fill out a “Media Authorization Card” that was apparently drafted especially for us because no other media agency has been required to fill it out.
In fact, here is an order from the previous chief judge outlining the procedures the media must go through in order to be able to record and there is not a single mention of this tedious Media Authorization Card application.
That was when we realized Mahon was going to continue moving the goal posts on us, which was when he filed our first appeal with the district court in April, hoping the higher court would have more Constitutional knowledge than Mahon.
But because we were requesting to video record a trial at the county level, which is administered by Mahon, the district court kicked the appeal down to the circuit court, which is also administered by Mahon.
As mentioned above, our appeal was denied in the circuit court by a judge he personally chose, which is why we had to refile with the district court this week, spending another $300 for filing fees.
But we learned Wednesday that the district court again rejected our appeal, insisting we do the entire song and dance required of us by Mahon (will post that document when we receive it).
Meanwhile, Hoffman, being the sign-carrying activist that he is, showed up to the courthouse one day in May with a sign lambasting Mahon for violating our right to record the trial.
As you can see in the photo above, Hoffman’s sign read: “Chief Judge Mahon + Judge B Shore violates the First Amendment.”
Mahon equated that with yelling “fire in a crowded theater.”
“Shouting out on the Courthouse grounds that the Court and judges are ‘corrupt’ during business hours while people are entering the Courthouse is entirely inappropriate and disruptive and is analogous to falsely shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theater,”
It was such a hyperbolic statement that the Florida Times-Union, the oldest newspaper in the state, posted the following question on its Facebook page along with the story they ran on the judge’s order.
Do you agree with the order or feel it is infringing on people’s First Amendment rights?
The responses, some posted below, were overwhelmingly supportive of Hoffman because most people can see the obvious; that Mahon was insulted by Hoffman’s signs, which shows he has no business sitting on the bench.
To further demonstrate Mahon’s lack of respect for the First Amendment, read the follow paragraphs from his order, which criminalizes videography from a public street – for non-credentialed media, that is – which apparently is determined by him. In fact, the sally port that he considers so secure, is frequently used to stage media to allow them to capture their perp walk shots.
Let’s not forget this entire debacle stems from a simple misdemeanor trial for a single charge of trespassing, a case that should have dismissed once it was determined that the airport is public property and Hoffman was not doing anything but holding up signs critical of the government reading, “Police State,” “Liars Investigating Liars,” “F??K THE TSA,” and “IRS = Terrorist.”
In fact, PINAC reporter Jeff Gray returned to the same spot not too long ago with a sign of his own that read “Freedom of Speech” as you can see in one of the videos that shows he was confronted by the same Jacksonville Aviation Authority police as Hoffman.
Except he was told he was not breaking any law, indicating that it was not the alleged trespassing they were concerned with, but the message of the sign. No different than Mahon who equates a sign criticizing him with yelling fire in a crowded theater.
And that is exactly why we are fighting so hard to record this trial. It’s not just about Hoffman and it’s not just about PINAC.
It’s about the First Amendment.
So if you would like to help us fight this, please contribute by clicking on the “donate” button below.
Andrew Meyer contributed to this report.