Fact Check

Was Ban on Cell Phones and Cameras During Trump's Arraignment Unusual?

"No cellular phones of any kind may be used as a camera or recording device..."

Published June 13, 2023

 (Photo by Timothy A. Clary-Pool/Getty Images)
Image courtesy of Photo by Timothy A. Clary-Pool/Getty Images
An order from the chief judge for the Southern District of Florida banning journalists from using cell phones or cameras during Trump's arraignment in the Mar-a-Lago classified documents case was unusual or unprecedented.

On June 12, 2023, a coalition of media outlets petitioned the Southern District of Florida court system to make accommodations for journalists covering the June 13 arraignment of former president Donald Trump on charges he violated portions of the Espionage Act by retaining classified documents. 

The coalition's primary request was an exception to a policy banning photography in the courtroom and nearby areas:

The coalition requests that the Court permit a limited number of photographs and video recordings in the courtroom and/or the outside corridor before the arraignment currently set for 3:00 p.m. on Tuesday, June 13, 2023. [...] The special and historic nature of this case warrants, at the very least, a limited, non-disruptive visual record before the hearing begins.  

Under a Southern District of Florida policy called local rule 71.1, members of the media have the right to make such a request, but the judges overseeing a case have the ultimate authority. 

Following their request, the Chief United States District Judge for the Southern District of Florida, Cecilia M. Altonaga, issued an order "Re: Cellular phone and electronic equipment usage on the Wilkie D. Ferguson, Jr. United States Courthouse on June 13, 2023." This administrative order declined the coalition's request:

ORDERED that on Tuesday, June 13, 2023, all cellular phones and/or electronic equipment are hereby prohibited for news reporters and other members of the media inside the Wilkie D. Ferguson, Jr. United States Courthouse in Miami. 

It is further ORDERED that the United States Marshals Service is to continue to inspect all cellular phones and other electronic equipment as they are brought into the federal courthouse facilities as directed to protect the Bench, Bar, and public from harm. 

It is further ORDERED that the penalty for knowing or willful violation of this Administrative Order includes a sentence of 30 days in jail and/or a fine of $5,000.00; and/or punishment for contempt of court. See Local Rule 77.1; 41 C.F.R. §§ 102-74.385; 102-74.420; 102-74.450; 18 U.S.C. § 401. 

It is further ORDERED that all other provisions of Administrative Orders 2019-87 and 2018-79 shall remain in effect. 

Some online commentators presented this order as unusual, suggesting that perhaps Trump was receiving special treatment:

Without debating the merits of limited press access to a proceeding of widespread national interest, such a move is neither unusual nor unprecedented. Local court rules in the Southern District of Florida dating back to 2019 specifically state that:

No cellular phones of any kind may be used as a camera or recording device in a courtroom, jury deliberations room or any lobby area of any building housing a federal court. No filming or photographs of any kind may be taken in any building housing a federal court, including any lobby areas, except in connection with naturalization hearings. It will be within the discretion of the presiding judge whether photographs are allowed to be taken inside the courtroom during naturalization hearings or other special proceedings, ceremonies or events. 

While these same rules allow journalists to request access and some limited personal cell phone or computer use during trials, the rule in no way guarantees that request will be granted. Limited press recording or access to transcribing tools in federal court cases have a long history, as explained by the Washington Post's Erik Wemple in 2021:

Though penalties vary, the rule that journalists may not use recording devices during court proceedings is a common one in both federal and state courthouses, bedeviling reporters as they struggle to capture quotes by writing longhand in their notebooks. .. Even states that permit TV and audio coverage require at least notification from media outlets, meaning that journalists … can't just walk into courtrooms and turn on their audiotaping devices. The rule applies in all states, says Bill Raftery, a senior [National Center for State Courts] analyst.

Because this policy has been in existence since 2019, and because it is common practice in federal courts to ban the recording of court proceedings, the claim that Judge Altonaga's 2023 order is unprecedented or unusual is "False." 


ADMINISTRATIVE ORDER 2023-40 . Southern District of Florida, https://www.flsd.uscourts.gov/sites/flsd/files/news/2023-40.pdf.

AMENDED ADMINISTRATIVE ORDER 2019-87 . Southern District of Florida, https://www.flsd.uscourts.gov/sites/flsd/files/adminorders/2019-87-A.pdf.

Dye, Liz. In Miami, Press Asks For Cameras, Judge Confiscates Their Phones - Above the Law. 13 June 2023, https://abovethelaw.com/2023/06/in-miami-press-asks-for-cameras-judge-confiscates-their-phones/.

LOCAL RULES United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida. Southern District of Florida, https://www.flsd.uscourts.gov/sites/flsd/files/22-11-15%202022%20Local%20Rules%20effective%20120122%20-%20FINAL.pdf.

PRESS COALITION MOTION REGARDING THE ARRAIGNMENT OF FORMER PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP. Case No. 23-cr-80101-AMC, https://storage.courtlistener.com/recap/gov.uscourts.flsd.648652/gov.uscourts.flsd.648652.10.0.pdf.

Wemple, Erik. "Opinion | Why Can't Journalists Audiotape Court Hearings?" Washington Post, 14 July 2021. www.washingtonpost.com, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/07/14/why-cant-journalists-audiotape-court-hearings/.

Alex Kasprak is an investigative journalist and science writer reporting on scientific misinformation, online fraud, and financial crime.

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