PINAC Sues FL Judge in Federal Court for Criminalizing Videography

Carlos Miller

PINAC Sues Florida Judge in Federal Court for Criminalizing Videography of County Courthouse (Updated).

Photography is Not a Crime is suing a high-ranking Florida judge who last week issued an order threatening to arrest us for contempt of court if we video record the Duval County Courthouse in Jacksonville from a public sidewalk.

It is not clear what Chief Fourth Circuit Judge Mark Mahon was thinking when he drafted his laughably unconstitutional order other than an inability to contain his disdain for PINAC, not to mention a clear contempt for the Constitution.

But there is no denying the rookie chief judge is now feeling the backlash of his ill-conceived power move, especially after two of the nation’s most respected law blogs, Popehat and Eugene Volokh, the latter publishing in the Washington Post, have mocked it as unconstitutional.

And especially since the order drew the attention of Jacksonville attorney Andrew Bonderud, who filed the suit this afternoon in federal court on behalf of PINAC reporters Thomas Covenant and Jeff Gray, both who were threatened with arrest last week for video recording the courthouse from a public sidewalk.

Bonderud, who joins attorney Eric Friday in our ongoing legal battle against the judge, also filed for a temporary restraining order against Mahon in federal court, which if granted, would prohibit Duval County sheriff officers from arresting Covenant and Gray for exercising their First Amendment right to record from in front of the courthouse.

The local media, for the most part, have not caught on to the fact that this concerns them too, but the Florida Times-Union, the oldest newspaper in the state, has been taking a keen interest in the case.

In fact, not only did they scoop us on our own story, publishing it about 30 minutes before we did, they reported that Judge Mahon has issued a new order that scales back on his previous order, but still forbids videography.

PINAC would be grateful if the Times-Union sends a videographer to the trial of our correspondent on Wednesday as they have the judicial right to record, but we don’t, even though the state Supreme Court says we do. That’s the core issue.

Even if the trial goes unrecorded, it is obvious that Mahon, who took over as Chief Judge of the Jacksonville-based Fourth Circuit in January, did not think this one through.

The 58-year-old Jacksonville native and former state representative comes from a very prominent law family in Jacksonville going back decades; a man firmly entrenched in the city’s good ol’ boy country club network, which probably explains why he thought he could manipulate the Constitution to his liking when dealing with the Miami-based PINAC.

But PINAC will never back down from such blatant Constitutional overreach, even if it comes from a sitting chief circuit judge who oversees three counties in North Florida.

And especially when it’s an order forbidding citizens from video recording a county courthouse that so far, has cost taxpayers almost a half billion dollars since it was built in 2012.

But Mahon says he is in fear for his life when people video record him entering the building, which is why he was driven to draft the order.

The unnecessary obstacles

Mahon’s battle with PINAC began as soon as he became chief judge in January when he refused us the right to record the trial of one of our correspondents, requiring us to go through a set of unnecessary hurdles that kept getting higher once they had been met – even though Covenant was allowed to record an initial hearing of our correspondent last year before Mahon took over.

Mahon eventually insisted we fill out a complicated “Media Authorization Card Application” that is not required of any other news site and has never been a requirement since the Florida Supreme Court began allowing cameras into the courtrooms in 1979.

The form, which appears to have just been drafted solely for us, requires a notarization, a criminal background check and six months proof that the videographer has covered judicial proceedings, which is hard to do if they don’t allow you to record judicial proceedings in the first place.

As a news site, we can easily prove we have covered judicial proceedings, but this form requires the videographer, whom in this case is Covenant, to provide video footage that he has recorded in courtrooms before.

The form was also the third unnecessary legal obstacle thrown before us after we had already met the first two obstacles, which is why we filed suit in the First District Court of Appeals last month, but that suit was denied on the basis that we had not gone through every obstacle presented before us, even though it is obvious we are being treated differently than other news companies.

This is basically a legal battle to broaden the definition of media from the traditional corporate print and television media to online entities like PINAC.

Mahon equates protesting against him to yelling “fire” in a crowded theater

On the same day the First District Court of Appeals rejected our appeal, July 1, Mahon issued his order forbidding videography from outside the courtroom as well as forbidding citizens from criticizing him with signs in front of the courthouse, an act he equated with yelling fire in a crowded theater.

This is what Jeff Gray had to say about that:

“Yelling fire in a crowded theater is only illegal if there is no fire. However, if there is a fire it is citizens duty to alert the crowd to that danger.
With Judge Mahon we at PINAC are yelling fire because we see smoke rising from the Duval County Courthouse and that smoke is coming from a burning Constitution. We are alerting citizens to that danger so that the fire can be extinguished before its too late”

It’s a complicated case that can be read more in-depth here, but Mahon’s order was an aggressive and unconstitutional reaction to one of our correspondents criticizing him by holding up a sign in front of the courthouse back in May.

Michale Hoffman was protesting in response to a decision by the courts to forbid him from using the First Amendment as a defense in his trial for misdemeanor trespassing, which stems from him holding up signs criticizing the TSA outside Jacksonville International Airport on public property last year.

Hoffman, whose trial begins Wednesday, is also represented by Friday, who is representing us in the right to record trials battle.

Unfortunately, his trial will take place without us recording, but if he is convicted, we will appeal while continuing challenging the court over the right to record the trial.

We also hope that the Florida Times-Union, which has been involved in its own legal battle against the Fourth Circuit over the right to record and has followed this case with interest, will bring a video camera into the courtroom during Hoffman’s just to remind the judge that the world is watching.

The main plaintiff in our latest lawsuit is Thomas Covenant aka Epic Old Guy, a Jacksonville native and resident and one of the original members of PINAC, back when it was just me, Jeff Gray, Joel Chandler and EOG himself.

The 70-year-old veteran became an activist when he discovered senior citizens were routinely discriminated against by the government, so his mission it educate other senior citizens in the power of making public records requests.

Covenant, who tends to stay in the background, routinely accompanies Gray on his notorious First Amendment audits, which means he is probably also routinely investigated by the Florida Fusion Center. Below are a pair of videos from a news show we were on in January 2014 featuring myself, Gray and Covenant, just to allow you to place a face and voice to the name.

Meanwhile, now that the gloves are off against Mahon, we will call this the Jacksonville Joust. The Duel of Duval County.

Or perhaps just Epic Old Guy vs. Epic Asshole Judge.

UPDATE: We are planning a protest outside the Duval County Courthouse on Monday, July 20, and invite everybody to join us. We’ll be posting more info about that soon, but mark the date. It can be a weekend meet up for citizens standing up for the First Amendment.

UPDATE II: The local media, specifically the Florida Times-Union and WJXT TV-4 , were allowed into the trial this morning with their cameras, even though they acknowledge in their story this morning that they did not go through the same judge-sanctioned requirements for court-issued credentials.

According to the Florida Times-Union:

Despite issuing orders banning photography from non-credentialed media in a misdemeanor trespassing trial, Judge Brent Shore changed course and allowed a still and a TV news camera Wednesday morning.
Shore has denied requests from Photography is Not a Crime, or PINAC, to film trial proceedings and hearings. The judge said photographers must receive media credential to film the trial.
Wednesday he allowed The Florida Times-Union and WJXT TV-4 to film and photograph the trial. Both photographers do not have media credentials.

This morning, several Jacksonville news sites, including News 4 Jax, Actions News and First Coast News had stories up about our lawsuit and how the judge is now backtracking. The Florida Times-Union, which is making frequent updates about the trial, has done an exceptional job of covering this issue from the beginning, including a snarky piece from one of their columnists.

This well-reported video also surfaced.


War on Photography