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Cnn To Keep Fighting Tv Court Ban

June 19, 1985|JAY SHARBUTT | Times Staff Writer

Although the U.S. Supreme Court has rejected Cable News Network's bid to televise some federal court trials, CNN, which spent $500,000 in that effort, will keep trying to end a long-standing ban against TV cameras in federal courtrooms, the news organization's chief lawyer said Tuesday.

"We'll look for other cases," Robert W. Ross said. He also said that Congress may look into the issue on its own or that CNN may seek a congressional hearing on the flat prohibition of TV cameras in federal trials.

He predicted that, one way or another, the ban will eventually end.

Ross spoke a day after the Supreme Court, without comment or dissenting vote, rejected CNN's challenge of the ban. The Atlanta-based company, owned by cable-TV entrepreneur Ted Turner, had claimed that the prohibition was unconstitutional.

"We're obviously very disappointed that the court declined to consider what we thought and still think was a valid issue, that a flat ban (on cameras) without consideration of the different constitutional issues, is a violation of the public interest," Ross said in a telephone interview from his office in Washington.

The Supreme Court's decision was an outgrowth of CNN's unsuccessful lower-court efforts last fall to televise the much-publicized federal court trial in New York of Gen. William C. Westmoreland's $120-million libel suit against CBS. That suit stemmed from a disputed 1982 CBS documentary, "The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception."

In seeking permission to broadcast the trial, CNN had noted that neither CBS nor Westmoreland's lawyers objected to the telecast and asserted that the proposed coverage would be unobtrusive and would not interfere with the proceedings.

The request was turned down by presiding Judge Pierre N. Leval, who, while saying he thought that CNN's petition "should be granted," said existing federal rules left him no choice but to reject it.

A three-judge federal appellate panel later denied CNN's appeal of Leval's decision, ruling that "no case . . . has held that the public has a right to televised trials."

After 18 weeks of testimony, the Westmoreland-CBS trial ended without a verdict Feb. 18 when each side agreed to have the suit dismissed.

But CNN still used the case as an argument for allowing broadcast and still-photography coverage of some--but not all--federal trials. In March, seeking to establish a precedent, it petitioned the Supreme Court to hear its appeal of the lower-court rejections of the request to televise the Westmoreland-CBS proceedings, even though the trial by then was over.

Although the Supreme Court ruled in 1981 that states are free to allow broadcast and still-photography of state and local court trials, it repeatedly has refused to scrap a rule against such coverage in federal trials.

In declining to hear CNN's petition, the high court on Monday in effect upheld that rule, which dates back to the 1930s.

Ross said that while the CNN petition stemming from the Westmoreland-CBS trial now is dead, with no hope of further action, CNN will look for other cases with which to pursue its arguments from perhaps "another angle."

He said that at least 42 states now allow some form of broadcast coverage of trials, and that "the federal bench is operating in the 17th Century on this issue."

However, Ross added, he is optimistic that in time the Supreme Court also will allow broadcast coverage of federal trials under some circumstances.

"You know the old saying, that 'this, too, shall pass'?" he said, speaking of the court's current position on the matter. "Well, this court's view, too, shall pass."

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