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Courtroom tweeting not a distraction

November 10th, 2009 Comments off

From law.com last week, I read a recent ruling that would ban reporters tweeting from the courtroom.
In United States v. Shelnutt (M.D. Ga. Nov. 2), a federal court in Georgia ruled that Rule 53 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure prohibits “tweeting” from the courtroom and that Rule 53 does not unconstitutionally restrict freedom of the press.
Rule 53 states that the “court must not permit the taking of photographs in the courtroom during judicial proceedings or the broadcasting of judicial proceedings from the courtroom.” The Shelnutt court found that “broadcasting” includes “sending electronic messages from a courtroom that contemporaneously describe the trial proceedings and are instantaneously available for public viewing.” The court stated that it “cannot be reasonably disputed that ‘twittering’ … would result in casting to the general public and thus making widely known the trial proceedings.”
The immediate result of the court’s decision, according to law.com, is to reject a request from a reporter for the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer that he be allowed to use his BlackBerry during the Shellnut criminal case in order to send updates to his newspaper’s Twitter feed. However, as Turkewitz observes, the temptation to report on trials via Twitter is something that will now likely present an issue for numerous courts.
“This is a bad ruling,” according to Marc Cohen, a colleague of mine from Minnesota Lawyers Weekly. “The “anti-broadcast” rules are to keep court proceedings from being disturbed by the presence of the “broadcast” media, not to keep the proceeding from becoming public (which it already is). The reporter who tweets is doing nothing more than he/she would be permitted to do (under the First Amendment) with pencil or paper.
“Under this interpretation of the courtroom broadcast rule, it would still be permissible for one reporter to be in the courtroom writing notes, and then passing them to someone else directly outside the courtroom who Tweets them,” Cohen continued. “What’s the logic in that distinction?”
I would have to agree.
Until and unless we are willing to eliminate all forms of note taking, asking reporters to give up their iPhones and Blackberries is going too far.

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