Monday, March 1, 2010

Banned in Baltimore: Some thoughts on social media and a free press

I’ve been getting phones calls lately asking what I think about the decision by a Baltimore judge to ban cell phones and social networking from the courtroom.

As I recently told a reporter from the Baltimore Sun, Twitter and other social networks have broadened public access trials, and that’s a good thing.
More people now are getting their news on their cell phones, and they’re getting it instantaneously.

Earlier this month Facebook became the fourth largest distributor of online news content. Many people are getting their news directly from sites such as Twitter. I often receive replies from my Twitter followers telling me they're following trials I cover exclusively there.

Courts and the press have been at odds in the past, and the U.S. Supreme Court has said the First Amendment should be weighed properly with the rights of a fair trial, but court proceedings are presumed open. During 10 years of covering courts, I've learned the press rarely gets in the way.

Our lawyer tells me a criminal case has never been reversed in Kansas because of a press issue. Cases do, however, regularly get reversed because of mistakes by judges, jurors and lawyers.

I’ve been asked several times what the Baltimore decision means for other courts across the U.S. My answer is: I hope not much.

Just as some courts allow cameras, while others – such as Baltimore and New York – don’t, courts should be independent in deciding about social media. Reporters using laptops and their cell phones in court should do so without disrupting the proceedings. Judges should remember to order jurors to stay off the Internet when they remind them not to follow traditional press coverage or do independent research.

More judges need to stay as plugged in as our judges in Kansas, including a federal judge here who is still hearing cases at age 102, and is an active online user.

I was asked last summer to speak at the judicial conference of the ABA National Convention about the use of social media in covering courts. I think as more judges learn how prevalent social media has become, and its value in delivering news, they’ll understand that limiting its use is limiting a free press. And there’s really no justice in that

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