The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the trial challenging California’s Proposition 8 may not be broadcast, saying concerns about harassment are “substantiated.” The court ruled that the decision to broadcast the hearings did not comply with federal law and that “irreparable harm” would likely result.
Last week Chief U.S. District Judge Vaughn R. Walker ruled that the proceedings on the trial challenging the voter-approved traditional marriage initiative could be uploaded at regular intervals to YouTube. Defenders of Prop. 8, which in 2008 restored the definition of marriage to be exclusively between a man and a woman, have said the broadcasts could expose their witnesses to further harassment and intimidation.
In the Jan. 13 “per curiam” document issuing its stay, the U.S. Supreme Court said the broadcast should not proceed because the lower courts apparently did not follow appropriate procedures according to federal law in changing their rules to allow the broadcast.
The District Court tried to change its rules “at the eleventh hour” to treat the case differently than other trials in the district.
“Not only did it ignore the federal statute that establishes the procedures by which its rules may be amended, its express purpose was to broadcast a high-profile trial that would include witness testimony about a contentious issue,” the Supreme Court said.
The ruling noted that some witnesses have said they will not testify if the trial is broadcast. These witnesses have “substantiated their concerns” by citing incidents of past harassment targeting those who supported Prop. 8. Evidence included 71 news articles detailing the incidents.
“[W]itnesses subject to harassment as a result of broadcast of their testimony might be less likely to cooperate in any future proceedings,” the court stated.
Andrew Pugno, general counsel for Prop. 8 backer ProtectMarriage.com, commented on the ruling in a Thursday statement.
He said Prop. 8 supporters are “relieved” at the Supreme Court’s intervention.
“As we have said from the start, televising the proceedings in a high-profile case is unprecedented in federal court, and impedes our ability to get a fair and impartial trial.
“Most importantly, putting Prop 8 supporters on the witness stand and broadcasting their testimony worldwide would virtually guarantee a serious risk of harm threatened by anti-Prop 8 extremists.”
Pugno noted that the court “expressly acknowledged” the record of Prop. 8 supporters being targeted by death threats, confrontational phone calls and e-mails, lost jobs, Internet blacklists and physical violence.
However, Judge Vaughn’s decision to broadcast the trial may have already affected the defense.
Last Friday Hak-Shing William Tam, one of the official proponent defenders-interveners in the Proposition 8 case, submitted a motion to the District Court asking to withdraw as a witness.
He said he was “fearful” for his safety and the safety of his family, citing death threats and vandalism.
He feared the trial would make him more recognizable and would increase the risk he will suffer harm.
Tam also noted an apparent death threat directed at him on a pro-Prop. 8 video he appeared in.