Media Law Handbook

Court Access


2. The history and policy behind open courts

1. Access to the Judicial Process

North Carolina’s courts are, with very few exceptions, open public forums for the resolution of disputes.  Article 1, Section 18, of the N.C. Constitution puts it succinctly: “All courts shall be open.”  Indeed, both the Supreme Court of the United States and the N.C. Supreme Court have ruled that criminal and civil court proceedings are presumptively open to the public under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.[1]  Accordingly, most criminal and civil trials and appeals in North Carolina’s state courts are open to the public, including the press.  Criminal and civil trials in federal district courts in North Carolina’s three federal judicial districts are also open to the public and the press, but unlike state courts, federal courts do not permit camera coverage under any circumstances.

This chapter discusses when courtrooms can be closed, which judicial records are available for public review, how to respond to a motion to close a courtroom or seal a document, and the rules governing the use of cameras and recording devices in courtrooms.  This chapter also covers the law concerning orders prohibiting the news media from publishing information seen or heard inside a courtroom (prior restraints), after-the-fact punishments for court coverage and restraints on trial participants talking with reporters (gag orders).  

This chapter is not intended to be an exhaustive review of every circumstance a journalist may face in seeking access to the courts.  If you should have any questions involving specific factual scenarios, we encourage you to contact the NCPA Hotline (919-833-3833), the NCAB Hotline (919-839-0300) or your organization’s counsel.


[1] See Richmond Newspapers, Inc. v. Virginia, 448 U.S. 555 (1980); Virmani v. Presbyterian Health Servs. Corp., 350 N.C. 449, 515 S.E.2d 675, 693 (N.C. 1999).

2. The history and policy behind open courts

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