Newhouse School’s Tully Center for Free Speech completes comprehensive study on public access to military court proceedings
Newhouse School’s Tully Center for Free Speech completes comprehensive study on public access to military court proceedingsAugust 15, 2008Jaime Winne Alvarezjlwinne@syr.edu
The Tully Center for Free Speech at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications today released research from a comprehensive study on public access to military court proceedings, to analyze the need for a standardized military docketing system that is available to the public. The center’s researchers found that, contrary to the law, one-third of military bases surveyed do not allow public access to information in military court schedules.
Lead researchers for the study were Barbara Fought, director of the Tully Center, and Newhouse graduate student Colleen Keltz ’08. The study was completed in conjunction with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP), a nonprofit organization that works to defend the First Amendment rights and freedom of information interests of the news media. Complete information and research findings are available on the Tully Center website (http://tully.syr.edu).
“The law is clear that courts-martial and military hearings should be open to the public, yet more than half of the military facilities contacted would not give the public enough information to know what is going on or to be able to attend proceedings,” says Fought. “Considering the problems at Abu Ghraib, increased deployments of service members and questions about the military’s role in Iraq, these findings are significant for free speech and public policy.”
Study findings will appear as an eight-page insert, “Secret Justice: Off Base: Fighting for Access to Military Court Dockets and Proceedings,” in the summer edition of The News Media and the Law, published by the RCFP. The publication, which goes out today, includes an article about the roadblocks journalists face in regard to covering military court proceedings.
The Tully Center and the RCFP undertook the research project after hearing anecdotal reports from journalists and citizens who were not able to access dates for military hearings. Some reported they could not attend proceedings even when they did find out about them. Critics of the military justice system have found there is no provision requiring U.S. military bases to give public access to the court docketing system. As a result, policies for providing information on pending criminal cases at military installations are inconsistent and confusing.
“Public trials are the bedrock right for defendants in this country. Since the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has received dozens of phone calls from reporters trying to cover criminal cases brought against soldiers and sailors in military courts. I was shocked to find there is no systematic way for the public to know what types of criminal charges are being brought against America’s men and women in uniform,” says Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the RCFP. “We decided to investigate the scope of the problem and are grateful to the Tully Center for conducting the survey research portion of our study of secret dockets in the military justice system.”
To determine the degree of public access to military court proceedings, investigators surveyed one-quarter of installations in each of the five main military branches: Air Force, Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard. Researchers did not include units of the National Guard due to their different structure and governance.
Ninety-nine U.S. military bases were contacted by telephone between October 2007 and March 2008. Locations were selected by random interval from a master list of U.S. military installations worldwide published by the Army Times. Researchers tried at least three times on different days to contact installations and eventually heard from 75 bases, translating to a 76 percent response rate-well above the norm for telephone surveys.
The survey included asking whether schedules for Article 32 hearings (preliminary hearings) and courts-martial are made public, and if so, how civilians can attend. In every case the investigator asked to speak with someone in “military justice” or the “legal department,” and explained they were researchers from SU and that the base had been randomly selected from U.S. installations worldwide for the survey.
Of those surveyed, 45 percent refused to provide any information on scheduled Article 32 hearings and some 37 percent declined to disclose courts-martial schedules. The survey also found that more than one-third of the bases that agreed to provide docketing information still withheld basic details, such as the defendant’s name or the criminal charge.
Results were divided into four categories, indicating whether schedules were: totally open for inspection, partially open for inspection (date or time was made public but not the defendant’s name or charge), no information was available to civilians, or the survey was not applicable. The last category encompasses the few military bases that do not conduct court proceedings on site.
“Service members who have sworn to uphold the Constitution, and are fighting and dying for it, often don’t get the Constitution’s guarantee of a public trial,” says Fought. “We’d like to see the military set up an easy, online calendaring system so reporters, as well as the public, can find out what is happening in military courts.”
The mission of the Tully Center for Free Speech is to educate students and the public about the important value of free speech. Through education, resources and research, the center strives to contribute to the discussion of media law issues in New York state, the nation and the world.
To read the RCFP’s complete analysis, “Secret Justice: Off Base: Fighting for Access to Military Court Dockets and Proceedings,” visit http://www.rcfp.org/militarydockets.