May 2, 2011

Massachusetts Courtroom Gets Media Upgrade

Starting today, Quincy District Court in Massachusetts is allowing laptops, iPads and smartphones in the courtroom, and is encouraging live blogging, Tweeting and Facebooking.

Court officials say this experiment will help establish suggested guidelines for courts as they grapple with how to use digital technology and how to accommodate citizen journalists and bloggers.

The pilot project is believed to be one of the broadest experiments in the country for using new media in the courts. 

The Quincy project is unusual because it will continuously stream live, unedited court proceedings all day. 

"In the past, reporters were the connection to the nation's courts, but with the changes in the media landscape, there are just less and less journalists who are that bridge to the public," John Davidow, executive producer of the "OpenCourt" project, told The Associated Press (AP).

"At the same time, there's been the proliferation of reporting tools that are in the hands of all citizens, including iPhones and other smartphones that can record. People can Tweet, blog, report. The idea is to bring the courts and what goes on in the courts closer to the people so they understand how the law and the justice system work in this country," he said.

The new tools are not widely embraced by the nation's courts, where judges, jurors and lawyers are restricted in their use of digital technology and social media.

Jurors using portable electronic devices in some publicized case have caused mistrials and overturned convictions.  A judge in San Francisco dismissed 600 potential jurors after several acknowledged going online to research the criminal case they were called to consider.

The Quincy project is funded by a $250,000 grant through Knight News Challenge, which is a contest that encourages media innovation.

Davidow and others met regularly for months with court staff and lawyers to work out rules for the project.

Some defense attorneys and prosecutors in Massachusetts have not embraced the idea.

The court has had training sessions for lawyers to show them dead zones in the courtroom where they are able to have conservations that would be picked up by microphones.

"I'm not overly fond of the idea," Richard Sweeney, a Quincy defense attorney who regularly defends criminal clients in the courtroom, now newly wired, told AP.

"I think there are a lot of pitfalls. I understand and respect the concept "” they want an open court. In this era of everyone having cellphones and videos, I can understand that, but it's fraught with perils for attorneys with conversations that can be picked up."

Court officials around the U.S. are watching the Quincy experiment as they try to come up with policies on dealing with live streaming, citizen journalists and bloggers.

"There's no firm national standard on how to do this," Gregory Hurley, an analyst for the National Center for State Courts in Williamsburg, Va, told AP.

"I do think this is the wave of the future. More courts are going to want to experiment with this and see if they want to make this available to the public."


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