Iowa radio station protests denial of court access

IOWA CITY – An Iowa radio station owner vowed to take legal action Wednesday after a judge barred one of his reporters from covering a trial that would have been open to still and television cameras.

Coralville-based KCJJ planned to broadcast a misdemeanor assault trial at the Johnson County Courthouse to highlight a case that the station owner, Steve Soboroff, considered a waste of prosecutorial resources. Soboroff said that Jeff Waite, the owner of Hawkeye Sewer & Drain and a station advertiser and caller, was accused of spilling cold coffee on someone’s sleeve during a dispute.

“We thought maybe the judge would throw it out. We didn’t think the judge would throw us out!” Soboroff said later.

KCJJ applied for permission last month to use audio equipment to cover the case, as required by Iowa’s expanded media coverage rules. Such requests are routinely granted, but Magistrate Judge Lynn Rose entered an order Tuesday that limited media equipment in the courtroom to one still camera and one video camera with a microphone.

When KCJJ reporter Kyle Hughes showed up to cover the trial Wednesday, court staff said Rose would not allow him to use a microphone or other audio equipment, Soboroff said. Hughes later proposed that he use a cellphone to stream the proceedings, but that request was also denied, he said. No other reporters covered the case.

Rose didn’t return a message. But Clerk of Court Kim Halverson said Rose believed her order was “fair given the type of case that she was dealing with.” She didn’t elaborate.

Soboroff said he believed that it was illegal for his station to be denied the same access as other media, and that he had already contacted lawyers to start pursuing legal action.

“I’m not putting up with that. My radio station is just as valuable when it comes to covering news in this community as some out-of-town television station,” he said.

The rules governing courtroom coverage in Iowa state that up to two still photographers, two television cameras and one audio system can be given permission to broadcast any proceeding. But judges are given some discretion to decide questions of access.

For instance, judges can bar access for if they believe that “substantial rights of individual participants or rights to a fair trial will be prejudiced.”

Soboroff said it’s possible the judge didn’t like the station’s previous coverage of the case.

“It’s possible she thought it was going to disrupt her court,” he said. “She may have a perfectly good reason in her brain why she didn’t want us there.”