Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Twitter in the Court, Twitter in the Court

Dauphin County, Pennsylvania Judge Richard Lewis denied a defense motion to ban the use of the website Twitter from his courtroom during the trial of former state representative Mike Veon and three co-defendants.

According to the Pittsburgh Tribune Review, Lewis said preventing the sending of news snippets known as "tweets" before they've even happened would constitute "an impermissible prior restraint on speech protected by the First Amendment."

Ironically, in addition to a few reporters, one of the defendants, Stephen Keefer, was posting "tweets" about the trial. Again, according to the Tribune-Review, Keefer wrote,"Sorry folks. No more tweets from court," Keefer added, "AG's (attorneys general) R worried about me saying anything bad about (Tom) Corbett or this phony investigation." Tom Corbett is the Republican state attorney general. His office is prosecuting the four Democrats while he campaigns for governor.

Twitter is a free social networking (microblogging) service that enables users to send and read messages known as tweets. Tweets are text-based posts of up to 140 characters displayed on a web page as well as delivered directly to subscribed "followers."

Nationwide, courts have struggled with the use of twitter in the courtroom. In 2007, U.S. District Judge Arthur J. Schwab allowed reporters to post stories live during a criminal trial in Pittsburgh. A federal court in Kansas permitted the use of twitter, while a federal court in Georgia prohibited its use during a recent trial.

There appears to be little concern about the public learning instantly the nature of testimony as it is presented at trial. Trials are open to the public and the public is invited to attend such proceedings. In fact, the constitution encourages the open and transparent conduct of judicial business.

The concern with twitter lies in otherwise sequestered witnesses (those barred from hearing the trial testimony before they testify) having access to testimony through twitter. This appears to be a specious argument. Sequestered witnesses have had access to trial testimony for as long as newspapers have covered trials. Judge Lewis in the Veon trial has addressed the concern with a further admonishment to witnesses to avoid not only newspaper and other media reports, but also electronic communication before testifying.

Inevitably, some witnesses will try to gain access to trial testimony, just as some jurors will do independent research during trial. The conduct in both instances is highly unethical and inappropriate. However, a blanket prohibition against twitter or blogging in the courtroom will not alleviate those few who ignore the rule of law.

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