March 6, 2009

Twitter Use Allowed In A Federal Court

A judge is allowing a reporter from the Wichita Eagle to use the microblogging service Twitter to provide constant updates from a racketeering gang trial happening this week, Reuters reported.

Online streaming has been allowed in courtrooms for criminal cases on only a few occasions.

Two lawyers in the trial expressed concern that a juror might visit the online site to read the posts from the reporter, despite the fact that jurors are always told to avoid newspaper, broadcast and online reports.

"You either trust your jurors to live with the admonishment, or you don't," said U.S. District Judge J. Thomas Marten.

Twitter is an increasingly popular micro-blogging service that allows users to update others on what they're doing or observing. The postings, known as "tweets," are limited to 140 characters and can be sent and received on a mobile phone or computer.

Ron Sylvester, the Wichita Eagle reporter, said he has been using Twitter for a year now to cover hearings and trials in state courts.

However, he said the racketeering trial of six Crips gang defendants that he's covering online this week is his first in federal court.

Tweets from Sylvester's previous courtroom coverage include the following observations:

  • "Judge Marten is talking to reluctant witness in chambers with a court reporter transcribing the conversation."
  • "The witness who was yelling in the hallway earlier has not returned to the courthouse."
  • "Defendants are chatting and laughing among themselves."
  • "Exhibits are shown electronically. Every juror has a monitor in the box. There is a monitor at each lawyer's table and one for the gallery."

"Twitter is another form of reporting news that lends itself to courtroom coverage," said Sherry Chisenhall, executive editor of Sylvester's newspaper.

She said Sylvester had never sacrificed accuracy, quality or standards while providing Twitter updates. "There is an immediacy that has been great for our audience."

Sylvester said the father of one of the defendants "” who lives in Houston and can't attend the trial "” was among those who had already signed up to follow his Twitter posts.

"It does improve public access to the courts," Sylvester said.

Tech-savvy federal judges are becoming increasingly receptive to live courtroom media coverage using emerging technologies. It is already relatively common for journalists to use such technology while reporting from trials in state courts.

The federal judiciary has historically been more restrictive in criminal trials, with some U.S. Supreme Court justices adamantly opposed to cameras in their courts.

When it comes to emerging online technologies, federal judges have wide discretion on how to run trials.

Marten told the Associated Press: "The more we can do to open the process to the public, the greater the public understanding - the more legitimacy the public system will have in the eyes of the public."

The federal system has allowed several examples of real-time online coverage during select hearings.

In January, a federal judge in Massachusetts granted a request for online streaming of a hearing in a recording industry lawsuit against a Boston University student accused of illegally downloading music.

A Cedar Rapids Gazette reporter was granted live blog updates in a January tax fraud trial from a laptop computer, while the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York allowed live television coverage in December of arguments in the case of a Canadian engineer who wants to sue the United States for mistaking him for a terrorist and sending him to Syria.

In 2007, bloggers were allowed permission to cover the CIA leak trial for former Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, and others were even given the same credentials as traditional journalists.

However, during criminal trials, recording devices and cameras are prohibited in all federal courtrooms. The Supreme Court may release audio recordings of oral arguments only in select high-profile cases.

In the past two years, the House and Senate Judiciary committees have passed legislation that would authorize, but not require, cameras in federal courts. Currently, neither the full House nor the Senate has voted on the legislation.

Eventually, the Judicial Conference of the United States or Congress will give federal judges discretion to allow cameras into their courtrooms to give outsiders more access to the justice system, Marten said.

"There have been enough public examples of trials being televised with appropriate safeguards that at some point the objections are going to dry up," he added.

However, many do still object.

The January decision by U.S. District Judge Nancy Gertner to allow a courtroom video service to transmit a webcast of the Boston hearing in the music-downloading lawsuit is currently being appealed by the Recording Industry Association of America.

The RIAA argues that the webcast goes against federal court guidelines and will hamper its ability to get a fair trial.

Yet some 14 news organizations have filed a brief to the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in support of Gertner's decision, arguing the webcast is in the public interest.

During a July conference of the American Bar Association in Chicago, Sylvester is slated to give a presentation to lawyers and judges on journalists' use of Twitter. "That will do more to help journalists than anything else," he said.

Marten's decision to allow courtroom Twitter postings is "huge for bolstering public access," according to Dave Aeikens, president of the Society of Professional Journalists.

Aeikens said the courts need to "understand and welcome" the changes in technology that make up how reporters gather and deliver news.


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