After the COVID-19 pandemic reached Texas, courts were among the first agencies to limit public interaction by postponing non-critical hearings and handling critical matters remotely. More recently, courts expanded beyond just hearing “essential” matters, with many courts now handling a variety of proceedings remotely, including final trials.
Proceedings are now being held on the videoconferencing application Zoom and then streamed to the public on YouTube to maintain the transparency and allow access to the remote court proceedings. The individual courts’ web pages now have a tab called “Join Livestream” which links to live YouTube feeds of the growing number of Zoom proceedings. Many courts’ online COVID-19 policies and procedures warn litigants that, due to Texas law’s “Open Courts Provision,” anyone may gain access to view the proceeding. However, any video or audio recording of the livestreams is prohibited.
The right of the public to attend civil trials is grounded in the First Amendment as well as the common law. However, although constitutional in nature and origin, the right to public and open hearings is not without limitations, and may be outweighed by other competing rights or interests, such as interests in security, preventing disclosure of non-public information, ensuring a fair trial, or protecting a child from emotional harm.
So what safeguards are available to litigants who may be concerned and wish to limit public access to their remote proceedings?