The American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota wants to support a coalition of local and national media companies pushing to livestream the manslaughter trial of former Brooklyn Center police officer Kimberly Potter.
The organization filed a letter with the court Friday noting its interest in filing a brief on the matter after Hennepin County District Judge Regina Chu ruled in August that Potter's trial would not be livestreamed.
Potter, who is free on $100,000 bond, is scheduled to stand trial Nov. 30 on one count each of first- and second-degree manslaughter for fatally shooting Daunte Wright during an April 11 traffic stop. Her attorneys plan to argue that she mistook her handgun for her Taser when she shot Wright.
"This Court's decision will immediately impact how many residents of Hennepin County, the State of Minnesota, and around the globe have access to a trial of paramount public importance," the ACLU said in its letter.
"The ACLU-MN supports the Media Coalition's position that prohibiting A/V coverage while also holding the Potter trial in a courtroom that lacks sufficient seating for possibly any members of the general public functionally constitutes a courtroom closure that violates [the] First Amendment to the United States Constitution."
The media coalition filed a motion Monday challenging Chu's ruling. The group includes the Star Tribune, Minnesota Public Radio, local TV stations, Court TV, the Washington Post and others.
The coalition noted that Potter's trial will take place in the same courtroom where former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was tried this year for killing George Floyd. The courtroom can accommodate only two to three journalists and no members of the public after the gallery seats were removed because of COVID-19, the coalition said. It said the number of spectators who will be allowed at the trial has not been disclosed.
"The right of access is not merely a 'token' or 'theoretical' right," wrote the coalition's attorneys, Leita Walker and Emmy Parsons. "That is, pandemic or no, the First Amendment is not satisfied if but a few members of the press and the public are able to observe a trial. Rather, the First Amendment right of access is a right of meaningful access."
Livestreaming Potter's trial would allow meaningful access, Walker and Parsons argued. They said playing a closed-circuit feed to an overflow courtroom with limited seating would not suffice. The courts continue to observe social distancing protocols and require masks because of COVID-19.
Court TV livestreamed Chauvin's trial to several media outlets, and Walker and Parsons argued that the network's technology was "vastly superior" to the court's closed-circuit technology. Presiding Judge Peter Cahill had ordered the trial to be livestreamed, noting that overflow courtrooms had limited seating and poor video and audio.
The coalition and ACLU used Cahill's order to bolster their case.
"An overflow room is neither an alternative less restrictive … nor, as Judge Cahill found, a 'reasonable measure to protect the constitutional rights of defendant, the public and the press,' " the ACLU wrote.
The ACLU and coalition argued that while Potter's trial will likely not draw as much interest as Chauvin's trial, Chu had underestimated the public interest.
"Protests related to Mr. Wright's killing lasted 11 nights and continued for nearly a month. … Even three weeks after Mr. Wright was killed 'hundreds' of people joined his family in a three-mile march," the ACLU said in its letter.
The coalition also argued that while Chu said in her order that the pandemic was "winding down," COVID-19 hospitalizations in Minnesota were "slightly higher" in October than they were when Chauvin was tried in April.
"If the Court is concerned about the safety of the trial participants and the general public, the Court should make remote viewing of the trial possible," the coalition wrote.
"If it won't permit livestreaming of this trial, then it needs to open the courtroom up to substantially more members of the press and public than it is prepared to accommodate."
Chao Xiong • 612-270-4708