SAN FRANCISCO — A federal judge Friday rejected a television station's unprecedented bid to film executions in California, holding that authorities may bar cameras from the gas chamber as a risk to prison security.
But U.S. District Judge Robert H. Schnacke, ruling in a closely watched test of media rights, struck down a recently imposed ban on all news personnel at executions. After long being permitted to attend, reporters cannot now suddenly be barred, the judge said.
Nonetheless, the potentially inflammatory impact of a filmed execution on inmates and the risk of revealing the identities of prison staff at an execution justified the prohibition on cameras, he said.
"While the press cannot be arbitrarily excluded, that doesn't mean the media can't be subject to reasonable limitations," Schnacke announced in a filled courtroom. "(Officials') reasonable concerns must be accommodated."
News reporters in California have been permitted behind prison walls to attend executions for more than a century, along with official witnesses. Neither California nor any other state has authorized news cameras at such proceedings.
The case sparked nationwide debate over the legality of restrictions on news coverage of executions and the propriety of photographing such an event. The issue split both opponents and supporters of the death penalty. A bill to allow televised executions was introduced but voted down last month in the Assembly.
The case arose last year after San Francisco public television station KQED was denied permission to film the impending execution at San Quentin State Prison of condemned murderer Robert Alton Harris. The station wanted to use the footage in a documentary on the case. Harris' execution was later blocked by a federal appellate judge and his case remains before the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. If his appeal fails, he could be executed later this year.
Meanwhile, the station brought suit seeking the right of access for cameras. After a non-jury trial began, prison warden Daniel B. Vasquez, the defendant in the suit, barred all news reporters, but indicated he would lift that ban if cameras were prohibited. A coalition of news organizations, including The Times, joined in the legal attack on the outright ban.
After Friday's ruling, William Bennett Turner of San Francisco, attorney for KQED, said he was "extremely disappointed" that the judge had refused to require officials to admit cameras as the "normal reporting tools" used by television journalists. The judge, he said, had been "unduly deferential" to speculative fears by prison officials.
Nonetheless, Turner welcomed Schnacke's ruling striking down the all-out ban on reporters at executions. "The 1st Amendment is alive and well," he said.
Michael Schwarz, current-affairs director for the station, said an appeal of the decision would be considered. Schwarz rejected the suggestion that any pressure had been brought to drop the case, saying the station's board of directors was "very strongly behind" the suit. Turner and attorney Beth S. Brinkmann are representing the station for free.
State Deputy Atty. Gen. Karl S. Mayer, representing the warden, said he was "very pleased" by the ruling. Mayer said there would be no appeal of that part of the decision striking down the all-out ban on press access.
In his ruling, Schnacke pointed out that the news media's right of access to legal proceedings was no greater than the general public's, and was subject to reasonable restrictions.
But he said the warden's all-out ban on press attendance, issued in the wake of the demand for the presence of television cameras, was "more emotional than rational."
"It does appear that where there is a long custom and practice of accommodating the press, and where that has not caused any intrusion of any sort . . . it is probably irrational, unreasonable and capricious to bar the press at this point," the judge said. Nonetheless, he said, the ban on cameras is "reasonable and lawful."
Schnacke noted concerns by prison officials that cameras might reveal the identities of guards and other staff members, jeopardizing their safety and that of their families.
Cameras, like other heavy objects barred at executions, could be thrown through the protective screen around the gas chamber, causing leakage, the judge said. "The warden is not required to trust anybody," Schnacke said. "It's no answer to say the press are all nice people and would never do anything irrational."
Finally, the judge observed, there were legitimate concerns that a filmed execution would have a disruptive impact on the 300 prisoners on Death Row and other inmates in an already tense prison. Still photos or a live broadcast seen by inmates with television sets could spark "a severe reaction," he said.
On other issues in the case, Schnacke also ruled that:
* The warden may not bar reporters from bringing notebooks, pens and pencils to executions. Until recently, such a policy had existed at the prison, but later was withdrawn.
* The current process for selecting reporters to attend executions is valid. Under the procedures, employed for the scheduled execution of Harris, news organizations apply for permission to attend and the selection is made by the warden and the governor's press secretary. Last year, 16 places were set aside for news organizations, including one for The Times. By law, the warden also must permit at least 12 "reputable citizens" to attend as witnesses.