Success Story

Protecting the First Amendment in Minneapolis

May 18, 2021

The trial of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin—convicted in the murder of George Floyd—was the first Minnesota criminal trial to be broadcast live on television. That almost didn’t happen.

The case was the focus of intense international scrutiny. But with the deadly coronavirus pandemic raging, the court imposed a near-total prohibition on in-person attendance. In Minnesota, cameras are allowed in court only if all parties consent—and state prosecutors refused to do so.

Over the objection of prosecutors, the court declared the only way to have an open trial was to livestream it. The prosecutors then filed a motion for reconsideration, urging the judge to reverse course.

Leita Walker, a Minneapolis-based First Amendment litigator and partner in Ballard Spahr’s Media and Entertainment Law Group, represented a coalition of news organizations that demanded access. The coalition included the Star Tribune, Minnesota Public Radio, the Associated Press, CBS, Court TV, CNN, The New York Times and others. Assisted by Emmy Parsons, an associate in the firm’s media practice, Ms. Walker filed a brief in support of the judge’s initial order to allow gavel-to-gavel video coverage.

“The proposal that this extremely high-profile and important trial should occur largely behind closed doors was not an idea our media clients were eager to accept,” Ms. Walker later wrote. But, she continued, they recognized the trade-offs—they could push for in-person access for just a few journalists, or they could find a way to let the world watch.

The May 25, 2020, slaying—captured on video—sparked a series of protests across the United States. Officer Chauvin knelt on Mr. Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes as Mr. Floyd, unarmed and handcuffed, gasped “I can’t breathe” numerous times before he died. His death unleashed an international outpouring of grief and anger over law enforcement’s treatment of Black men and women in America.

It wasn’t the first time Ms. Walker went to bat for the press to access information in the trial of a police officer: In 2019, she won media access to body-camera footage in the trial of Minneapolis officer Mohamed Noor, later found guilty in the killing of an unarmed Justine Ruszczyk Damond.

In the Chauvin case, Ms. Walker argued that if the court was going to close the courtroom because of the extraordinary circumstances brought on by the pandemic, the First Amendment required expansive remote coverage. The U.S. Supreme Court previously had made clear that trial courts “are obligated to take every reasonable measure to accommodate public attendance at criminal trials.”

Ms. Walker again succeeded on behalf of her media clients. The media coalition’s brief was accepted by the judge, who denied the prosecutors’ motion for reconsideration. With Court TV cameras rolling, the trial was livestreamed and broadcast on numerous outlets—as millions of viewers worldwide followed the proceedings.

Subscribe to Ballard Spahr Mailing Lists

Get the latest significant legal alerts, news, webinars, and insights that affect your industry.