SJC acknowledges 21st century
There are still courthouses around Massachusetts where index card files reign over computer files and you still have to go to clerks’ offices to get civil and criminal case documents because the state’s Trial Court website still does not post anything online except the barest of updates.
But yesterday, the Supreme Judicial Court struck a blow for progress intertwined with centuries of First Amendment decisions when it ruled the OpenCourt experiment in Quincy District Court, which streams court proceedings live and archives them for later access, could not be shut down over concerns minors could be identified.
“We conclude that any order restricting OpenCourt’s ability to publish — by ‘streaming live’ over the Internet, publicly archiving on the Web site or otherwise — existing audio and video recordings of court room proceedings represents a form of prior restraint on the freedoms of the press and speech,” Justice Margot Botsford writes in the unanimous opinion.
OpenCourt is a pilot program by WBUR radio in conjunction with the Quincy District Court that was funded by a Knight Challenge grant. The idea is to livestream court proceedings that are open to the public as well as set up in-court Wi-FI for reporters covering the courts. The judge has the discretion to turn off the cameras from the bench to protect witnesses and victims as he or she deems necessary.
But the program ran into a problem last year when former state senator Michael Morrissey became Norfolk District Attorney and filed suit to prevent the project from archiving clips over fears that minors and other victims would be identified. Morrissey used the case of a man who was facing charges of kidnapping and forcing a 15-year-old girl into prostitution. There was a separate suit trying to shut down the operation by a man accused of rape who claimed the livestreaming would impair his ability to get a fair trial. The court dismissed both challenges.
While the SJC ruling says any attempt to prevent both the livestreaming and archiving would amount to that judicial no-no known as prior restraint, it ordered OpenCourt to redact identifying information about protected victims and witnesses from its archive, a process that WBUR already undertakes. The ruling also instructs the court’s Judiciary-Media Committee, made up of judges and editors around the state, to see if further guidelines are in order.
Interestingly, the ruling comes in the midst of Sunshine Week, the media’s annual effort to spotlight the need for transparency in government.
The decision is the most recent acknowledgment by the state’s highest court that times have changed and the court system is slowly, sometimes grudgingly, going along. The SJC earlier this month amended its rules governing media coverage of the courts by allowing reporters to use their laptops during proceedings as well as “other electronic communication devices inside courtrooms if they are not disruptive to the proceedings.” The court also expanded the definition of who the media is by allowing “citizen journalists” – commonly known as bloggers – to bring in their video cameras and other devices as well.
Heady changes for the western hemisphere’s oldest court system, whose inner workings can seem mired in the past, its forward-looking judicial outlook notwithstanding.
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