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The Oklahoman to provide feed of opioid trial as court sets camera rules

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Judge Thad Balkman listens to fifth graders during a field trip by Eisenhower Elementary School students in this photo from 2017. Balkman on Monday issued an administrative order about cameras in the courtroom for the opioid trial. [THE OKLAHOMAN ARCHIVES]
Judge Thad Balkman listens to fifth graders during a field trip by Eisenhower Elementary School students in this photo from 2017. Balkman on Monday issued an administrative order about cameras in the courtroom for the opioid trial. [THE OKLAHOMAN ARCHIVES]

NORMAN — The Oklahoman has been designated to serve as the sole provider of shared courtroom video and audio content for news organizations interested in reporting on the upcoming May 28 trial of opioid manufacturers.

"This trial is important, not only to Oklahomans but families across the nation who have been impacted by addiction," said Kelly Dyer Fry, editor and publisher of The Oklahoman. "Cameras in the courtroom will extend access and transparency."

The Oklahoman intervened in the lawsuit to ask that cameras be allowed in the courtroom, citing the intense public interest in the case.

Cleveland County District Judge Thad Balkman issued an administrative order Monday directing media organizations that would like to use the courtroom video and audio content to submit requests for media credentials to Oklahoma City attorney Bob Burke by May 10.

The judge designated Burke to serve as a special master in charge of issues involving cameras in the courtroom for the nonjury trial. The complete video and audio content will be provided without charge to all credentialed news media.

State judges in Oklahoma have discretion over whether to allow cameras in their courtrooms for trials.

Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter and attorneys for the state have been highly supportive of allowing cameras in the courtroom for the trial, while attorneys for the drug companies argued against it.

The trial is attracting national attention because it has the earliest start date of hundreds of lawsuits filed against opioid manufacturers by states, cities, counties and Native American tribes. They have accused drug companies of making billions of dollars in profits by waging marketing campaigns that understated the addictive properties of opioid painkillers while overstating their therapeutic benefits.

Nationally, opioids contributed to 47,600 overdose deaths in 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Purdue family of drug companies has already reached a $270 million settlement with the state and has been dropped from the case, while Johnson & Johnson, Janssen Pharmaceuticals Inc., and Teva Pharmaceuticals USA are among nine drug companies still awaiting trial.

Attorneys for the state have said they will be asking for billions of dollars to pay for nuisance abatement efforts.

Judge Balkman's administrative order contains a number of provisions designed to protect courtroom decorum and privacy interests of certain witnesses while still allowing video and audio transmissions designed to keep the public informed.

For example, the order states that the judge will terminate or restrict the use of cameras when it is shown that their use would constitute a "substantial invasion of a recognizable privacy interest."

"Media representatives may use an electronic device to silently take notes and transmit and receive data communications," the administrative order said. "A device shall not be used for audible communication or to live stream the proceedings via social media."

Reserve seating will be designated for media members.

The order says any post-trial use of a video or audio recording from the trial will require approval from the judge. Litigants will have the opportunity to have their objections considered by the judge.

News organizations interested in having still photographers in the courtroom also must submit their requests to Burke by May 10.

The judge said only one media member at a time will be allowed to take still photographs in the courtroom and urged media organizations to develop a plan for alternating access that will give all credentialed media fair access to courtroom proceedings.

Randy Ellis

For the past 30 years, staff writer Randy Ellis has exposed public corruption and government mismanagement in news articles. Ellis has investigated problems in Oklahoma's higher education institutions and wrote stories that ultimately led to two... Read more ›

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