As the sex trafficking trial of Jeffrey Epstein’s former girlfriend, Ghislaine Maxwell, began on Monday, social media users were spreading false claims that the judge barred the press from the courtroom and prohibited livestreams to keep details from the public.
In the high-profile case, Maxwell is accused of recruiting and grooming girls for Epstein, who killed himself after his arrest on sex trafficking charges of his own.
Maxwell’s case comes on the heels of the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse in a Wisconsin state court, which was televised live. And some online conspiracy theorists appear to believe the lack of cameras in Maxwell’s courtroom proves there is a larger cover up.
But the claims lack a fundamental understanding of how federal courtrooms in the U.S. operate.
Here’s a look at the facts.
CLAIM: The judge in the Ghislaine Maxwell case has issued a media-wide gag order over the trial with no livestream to keep scandalous details from leaking out to the public.
THE FACTS: Members of the media are allowed to watch Maxwell’s trial. But federal courts do not allow cameras like some state courts do, and the discrepancy is fueling confusion and conspiracy theories on social media.
In the lead up to the trial, news that the case would not be livestreamed began circulating on social media. Some users compared it to the fully-televised Rittenhouse trial. Over the weekend, users claimed the judge had placed a media “gag order” on the case and had banned the press from attending.
But reporters and members of the public are able to watch the trial live, both in the courtroom, as well as in overflow rooms where it will be streamed for those who don’t get a seat, Judge Alison Nathan wrote in a Nov. 24 ruling.
An Associated Press reporter was in the courtroom for part of the day on Monday. Journalists could also be seen waiting in line to get inside the courthouse in photos taken by the AP.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York confirmed in a statement released on Monday that press would be allowed to attend the trial, and that there would be no live feeds except those within the courthouse. In addition, no dial-in telephone line will be provided to listen to the proceedings, the office said.
Experts said that this is standard for federal court trials, where the only images that emerge are courtroom sketches
“Cameras are not allowed in federal courts, there is no live stream and no televised coverage,” Jennifer Rodgers, a lecturer at Columbia Law School, told the AP. “That’s a rule that covers all federal courts in the whole country. There is nothing suspicious about that.”
“This is not some dark conspiracy,” said Jane Kirtley, a University of Minnesota media law professor. “I would love to have cameras in all these cases but it’s a battle that has been going on for more than 20 years.”
Placing a gag order on the media is not easy and happens very rarely, Kirtley said.
“To gag the press, they would really have a high burden to meet constitutionally,” she said.
This is part of AP’s effort to address widely shared misinformation, including work with outside companies and organizations to add factual context to misleading content that is circulating online. Learn more about fact-checking at AP.