New rule could end tweets from trials statewide

Policy would bar electronic devices in courthouses

February 22, 2010|By Tricia Bishop | tricia.bishop@baltsun.com

A judiciary rules committee plans to adopt a statewide policy next month that would likely prohibit people from taking communications devices - including cell phones and computers - into Maryland courthouses.

The move raises issues of inconvenience for the public and access for journalists, who use their handhelds to post information to blogs and social media sites such as Twitter from courthouse hallways, not to mention conduct interviews and call their editors.

"By shutting this down, you're really shutting down information," said Ron Sylvester, a Wichita ( Kansas) Eagle reporter who has spent the past two years live-Tweeting trials. At the end of the day, he could have 200 Twitter posts filed - three times the information he will publish in the Kansas paper.

A Baltimore judge last month banned posts to such sites from the Circuit Court, as Mayor Sheila Dixon's much-Tweeted corruption case wrapped up. And though the rule targeted media, it affected everyone. This new ban would be much wider.

Proponents say it could keep witnesses safer (particularly in Baltimore, where visitors have photographed so-called "snitches" with cell phone cameras) and minimize some disruptions, such as the cell phone ring that always seems to come mid-trial. But opponents say such restrictions are inconvenient and unrealistic.

Some 4.6 billion people - most of the planet's population - regularly carry some kind of cell phone.And people have become accustomed to accessing information in real time from online media, rather than waiting for regularly scheduled broadcasts or newspaper deliveries.

"The idea of public trials goes way back ... to English common law, where they used to have trials in the public square," Sylvester said. "Twitter now has broadened your public square to the rest of the world."

Most individual courts make their own rules when it comes to electronic media. The policies are put in place piecemeal, and they vary widely, often according to the technological sophistication of the rule makers.

"There's a great potential to confuse the public," said Gene Policinski, executive director of the First Amendment Center in Tennessee.

A federal court in New York's Southern District, for example, recently added laptops to its list of banned devices, though attorneys can take them in with a court order. But a Boulder, Colo., federal judge last year allowed blogging and tweeting from her courtroom during a high-profile child abuse trial. And a Boston U.S. District Court judge was willing to Webcast a trial in April, though an appeals court vetoed the plan.

Meanwhile, in Howard County, state courts won't even let visitors have cell phones.

"The courts are going to have to decide at some point ultimately is the system going to be open, and are we past the era when this would be an intrusive" thing, Policinski said. "This is really all about balancing the right of the public to know what's going on in the courts versus the right of the public to have a fair trial. Those ought to be the considerations."

Florida is considering a statewide policy, as is Maryland, where the Standing Committee on Rules of Practice and Procedure also looked at a blanket policy in October, but members voted against it 11 to 5. The issue was resurrected last month, however, after Robert M. Bell, chief judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals, requested it.

In a Jan. 15 memo to rules committee chairman Judge Alan M. Wilner, Bell said he "inquired of the Court whether it was its preferences that there be a state-wide rule on cell phones, applicable to all Maryland courts. The response was 'yes,' a majority of the court concurring." And with that, the issue was again on the table. It's listed on the agenda for the March 5 meeting of the rules committee.

Bell did not respond to an interview request, but he has previously noted the educational role of the media. "Most of our citizens do not see court proceedings firsthand," he acknowledged in the Journalists Guide to Maryland's Legal System. "They get most of their information about their courts and the justice system from the media."

Bell made no recommendations about the substance of a statewide electronics-device policy in his memo, though the previous proposal recommended a ban. "A person may not bring any electronic device into any court facility," it reads. That's pretty much what the new proposal says, too, Wilner said in an interview.

Judges, court employees, jurors, attorneys, certain government agents, law enforcement officers and "other persons" with written permission could be exempted, however. And while most members of the public wouldn't make that cut, media could possibly fall into the "other" category or be specially credentialed to carry electronic devices.

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