Cook County bans reporters from bringing computers, phones into courthouse — for now

The ban was ordered after a reporter took photographs with a cellphone while in a courtroom, a spokeswoman said. A meeting has been set for Friday with court officials “to discuss expectations going forward.”

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Cook County Criminal Courts, 2601 S. California Blvd.

The Leighton Criminal Courthouse

Sun-Times file

Reporters covering hearings and press conferences in Cook County have long been allowed to bring their computers and cellphones into the criminal courthouse at 26th and California to do their job.

No more, under an order issued Wednesday by Circuit Court Presiding Judge Erica Reddick.

Effectively immediately, “all media and members of the public except employees and authorized personnel shall not bring cellphones, laptops or any electronic devices into the George N. Leighton Criminal Courthouse.”

Television news camera crews are banned from recording in a designated press area in the building’s lobby under the order.

Aspokeswoman for Chief Judge Tim Evans said the judge would meet with members of the media on Friday “to discuss expectations going forward.”

The ban stems from an incident this week when a member of the media took photographs with a cellphone while in a courtroom, a breach of court rules, a spokeswoman for Chief Judge Tim Evans said in a statement.

On Tuesday morning, a Cook County sheriff’s deputy was informed by a member of the public in Judge Peggy Chiampas’ third-floor courtroom that a reporter had taken pictures of them with her phone while they were in the courtroom’s gallery, according to a sheriff’s department incident report.

The reporter stated she had made “a horrible lapse in judgement” and admitted to taking the photo, which she showed to another deputy.

The reporter was told to delete the image from her phone, which she did, and she was escorted from the building, the sheriff’s office said. No further actions were taken against the reporter.

Matt Topic, a lawyer who focuses on government transparency law, called the ban “excessive.”

“While courts should maintain decorum and enforce their rules, a ban applicable to all reporters, including the large number who have carried cellphones in the courthouse without incident for years, seems excessive and raises First Amendment concerns,” Topic said.

Long gone are the days when reporters used notebooks and rushed to the courthouse lobby phone bank to call in their stories. Now reporters rely on their phones and computers to take notes, write copy, keep the public updated on social media and file their stories.

Most members of the public are not allowed to bring their phones into the courthouse. An exception is made for jurors.

Court employees, attorneys and members of the media have typically been allowed into the courthouse with phones and computers, and are generally checked in through a separate entrance by Cook County sheriff’s deputies. Reporters are required to show their media credentials, including a photo ID issued by the Chicago Police Department.

Court employees and attorneys will still be allowed to bring in electronic devices because they are considered “authorized personnel” under a previous order, the chief judge’s office said.

A judge who works in the building but asked not to be named discussing the order said the public cellphone ban initially stemmed from concerns about people taking photos of witnesses during testimony.

He said he believed an exception for members of the media should continue and said he believed most other judges in the building would agree.

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