Real-time courts: A rules panel would send Pa. to the dark ages
Share with others:
Just as the state Supreme Court is stepping into the modern era by tweeting its rulings and allowing TV broadcasts of some sessions, its rules panel wants to take a big step backward.
The Criminal Procedure Rules Committee has proposed forbidding the use of electronic devices, including text messaging on cell phones, in all Pennsylvania courtrooms by individuals who are not a party to the proceedings. The rule would apply to the public, but it clearly targets reporters -- radio, television, newspaper and Internet news gatherers who would be barred from sending tweets and real-time updates from courtrooms.
The ban also would extend to areas "immediately surrounding" entrances to the courtrooms, a fuzzy definition that court officials could apply too broadly. Violations of the proposed rule would carry the threat of harsh penalties -- contempt of court citations and confiscation of the users' electronic devices.
Yet experience shows this heavy-handed approach is unnecessary.
During former state Rep. Mike Veon's Bonusgate trial, the judge did not ban real-time reporting from court, and the news media did so without disrupting the proceedings. Reporters provided instantaneous updates during a hearing for two Penn State officials in the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse case, too.
But Dauphin County President Judge Todd A. Hoover, who is presiding over Democratic state Rep. Bill DeWeese's corruption trial, cited the proposed rule -- on which the Supreme Court has not yet taken a position -- to bar reporters from doing so in his courtroom.
Naturally, news organizations oppose the rule, including the Post-Gazette, the Pennsylvania Society of Newspaper Editors, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association and the Pennsylvania Association of Broadcasters.
The real victim would be the public. Most citizens don't have the time or ability to attend trials, but in this era of rapid-fire communication, they increasingly rely on online services and deserve timely access to important news as it develops.
If the idea of the ban is to cut down on courtroom distractions, think how much more commotion will occur if reporters instead must engage in tag-team coverage so they can leave the room to send updates.
The rule also would take discretion away from judges who might not agree with the ban and it would affect jurors, too. Limiting electronic access to and from jurors is a different matter and worth doing. Jurors should be isolated from outside influences as they hear testimony and deliberate, since they're required by law to base their verdicts solely on evidence presented in court.
The rules committee is accepting written comments on the proposal until April 6. Pennsylvanians should speak up and protect their rights to real-time updates from newsworthy court proceedings.
First Published February 6, 2012 12:00 am