TechMan: Courts more restrictive for reporters
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What exactly is Pennsylvania's judiciary afraid of?
That is the question on some minds, many of them inside the heads of members of the media, as they face an increasingly restrictive atmosphere in the state about real-time reporting using social media from courtrooms.
In fact, there is a rule pending in the state Supreme Court system that would outright forbid any electronic devices to be used in the courtroom at almost all levels of the state judiciary system.
Specifically we are talking rules allowing "live tweets" from courtrooms during a trial.
During corruption trials of former state legislators Michael Veon and Vincent Fumo, tweeting and live blogging were allowed.
As it stands now, a judge has the right to allow limited electronic communications.
There are, of course, provisions that none of this can disrupt the courtroom. So receiving or making a call on a cell phone is not allowed, for example.
The Jerry Sandusky trial brings the issue to the forefront again.
In the Sandusky case, Judge John Cleland allowed tweeting during the preliminary hearings and issued an order that he would allow tweeting and text messaging during the trial.
However, he said there could be no "verbatim" communications.
A letter signed by major media outlets was sent to the judge seeking to clarify the meaning of "verbatim."
"Such a prohibition would be impractical, lead to less accurate reporting, and would constitute an unconstitutional prior restraint on speech," the letter said.
After receiving the letter and in his final ruling the day before jury selection, Judge Cleland reversed himself and banned all electronic devices from the courtroom during the Sandusky trial.
Which leads us to the nuclear option.
The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania's Criminal Procedural Rules Committee has published and completed public comment on an amendment to existing Rule 12 that governs broadcasting from the courtroom.
The amended section, as proposed, would ban "advanced communication technology including but not limited to cellular telephones, or other electronic devices with communication capabilities, from the hearing room or the courtroom or its environs during the progress of or in connection with any judicial proceedings, whether or not the court is actually in session."
Pretty far-reaching, no?
That rule change must be made final, taking into account public input, and then be submitted to the Supreme Court for approval.
Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association, which has testified against the rule change, said the rule would even ban reporters from bringing laptops into court to take notes.
"We step back about 50 years," she said.
Ms. Melewsky said if the rule were to be adopted, it is likely to become the standard for civil trials as well and at all levels of the state's judiciary.
"It has been argued that [tweeting and texting technology] is qualitatively different from traditional broadcasting, being less disruptive or intrusive in effect," the committee said, but it rejected this argument and cited other factors such as fair trial and privacy concerns.
The committee recognized that many states are more liberal in their rules -- a number of states allow video cameras in courtrooms -- but said that did not sway their thinking.
The question of "Why should I care?" arises.
Even if you don't make your living from reporting, you should be concerned. Public access to the courts is the American way. A right to a fair trial by a jury of peers -- in open court -- is a cornerstone of our country.
No one disputes that anything disruptive to the courtroom should be banned. But it is hard to see the difference between finding out what is happening in a trial from a tweet and sitting in the audience and listening.
Is this a case of technology leaving the law so far behind that judges are afraid to deal with something they are not sure they understand?
Whatever the case, the question still remains as Ms. Melewsky puts it, "Where is the harm?"
First Published June 10, 2012 12:00 am