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Courthouse photography ban lifted by chief judge

Administrative order drew complaints, legal challenge, protests

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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Chief Judge Mark Mahon on Wednesday rescinded a week-old administrative order that limited photography and certain forms of protest on the grounds of the Duval County Courthouse.

In a notice rescinding Administrative Order 2015-4, Mahon wrote that the controversy about limiting free speech and public access to the courthouse overshadowed the intent of the order.

"The goal was to ensure the safety of all people who conduct business and work at the courthouse while, at the same time, ensuring such freedoms as speech and press were protected," Mahon wrote. "The intent was to strike an appropriate balance between what are, at times, competing objectives."

The order was issued after an incident in May when a press conference by State Attorney Angela Corey on the courthouse steps had to be moved because of a demonstrator who the judge said created a security threat.

Earlier this month, two members of the group Photography Is Not a Crime were shooting video outside the courthouse when JSO officers gave them the judge's order, threatening them with contempt of court if they didn't leave.

News4Jax was with Andrew Bonderud, an attorney who had filed a federal lawsuit challenging the ban, when the order was released.

"Fantastic. So that's good news," Bouderud said. "I think all of my clients' concerns have been addressed."  

News4Jax also talked with the two men involved in that lawsuit.

"Of course we're very happy that the judge withdrew the order," said Jeff Gray, who videotaped the July 2 protest that resulted in arrests. "We're also saddened that we had to file a federal lawsuit in the first place to get the judge to respect our First Amendment rights."

The initial order restricted certain activities on sidewalks leading to the courthouse, the courthouse steps and perimeter sidewalks on Adams, Duval, Broad and Pearl streets. The State Attorney's Office and the parking garage are considered courthouse grounds.

Gray and fellow activist Tom Covenant Pinac went to the courthouse Wednesday afternoon and began to videotape to see what police would do. There was no interference. 

"We have a right to know what our public officials are doing in a free society and ... on our behalf and at our expense," Gray said. "And part of that is being able to document what they do."

Former Judge John Merrett agrees with the final ruling, but said he thought the initial ruling and order was wrong.

"The police can stand on the sidewalk in front of your house, photograph you coming and going," said Merrett. "For there to be a rule that members of the public cannot stand on the street and photograph judges coming and going is an odious distinction."

News4Jax's attorney Ed Birk said that a quick reversal of the order limiting the public's behavior on public property was the right thing to do.

"I think Judge Mahon showed a lot of leadership and rescinding this order," Birk said. "This is a complicated issue. We've got to maintain the maximum access for the public ... and he has to maintain security and order and access."

News4Jax asked to speak to Mahon about his decision. He declined, but his attorney said efforts to withdraw the order have been in progress since last week.


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