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Jury's still out on banning pictures, recordings in Butler County courthouse

| Saturday, Nov. 2, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Butler County's chief judge is considering whether to prohibit picture-taking and the making of video or audio recordings inside the county courthouse and adjacent government center.

Butler County President Judge Thomas Doerr has asked for feedback from the county commissioners, county Solicitor Mike English and the county bar association.

“We're working on fashioning a policy so we don't interfere with anyone's rights,” Doerr said.

Doerr said the state Administrative Office of the Pennsylvania Court advised government agencies about a group gathering information about security measures at county courthouses across the state.

Doerr wouldn't identify the organization, and neither would Sheriff Mike Slupe.

The administrative office declined comment, saying it does not discuss security issues.

If someone is gathering information about courthouse security, “We're not sure as to the extent this information would be used, whether the intent of the person doing it would be to cause alarm or to use the information in some way that would be disruptive,” Doerr said.

According to a draft of the policy, people would still be allowed to carry electronic devices that can record or take pictures, but couldn't use them to do so. They could still use laptops and talk on cell phones in the hallways and common areas.

Doerr can implement the policy or chose not to, officials said. As president judge, he oversees courthouse security, said Butler County Commission Chairman Bill McCarrier.

McCarrier said he has not had a chance to look at the proposal.

Commissioner Jim Eckstein was staunch in his opposition.

“I'm appalled by it. I don't think we're any safer when we're losing our rights,” he said.

At the federal courthouse in Pittsburgh, most people are banned from taking a cell phone inside, and must leave them at secured entrances.

“This has been something that's been on my mind for a while,” he said. “Obviously, we want to protect the people first.”

Statewide policy already bans any public recording or taking photographs of court proceedings.

“Nothing in this order is meant to inhibit anyone from video or audio recording any public meeting that is required by law to be made available to the public,” the proposed order reads. “Nothing in this order is meant to constrain any elected official or county department head from making exceptions when required for the reasonable needs and requirements of conducting county business.”

Doerr added that he doesn't want the policy to interfere with media coverage in the courthouse or with ceremonies in courtrooms.

In the Allegheny County Courthouse, the public is restricted to using cell phones and recording devices in small areas. A sign posted in a hallway says that use of cell phones is restricted on floors three and five, and that cell phones will be confiscated.

“I think we're trying to be a little less restrictive than Allegheny County, but still draw the line to meet our needs,” Doerr said.

Of the proposed restrictions, ACLU attorney Sarah Rose said, “As long as the government applies the rules equally, they have the power to do so.”

Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel with the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association, said she was glad to hear Doerr didn't want to infringe on personal rights.

“Apparently, he realizes this kind of a regulation can get very broad very quickly and have unintended negative consequences,” Melewsky said.

Bill Vidonic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5621 or bvidonic@tribweb.com.

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