StinkyJournalism recently covered the Supreme Court’s ruling against a California court’s plan to allow broadcasting of the Proposition 8 trial. (Check out the full story here.) Now, a Baltimore court ruling has banned trial audiences from tweeting--or otherwise disseminating through a social network—anywhere inside the Circuit Court for Baltimore City. According to the Baltimore Sun, Marcella A. Holland, the administrative judge for Baltimore City ordered the ban “on the assumption that posting to Twitter is effectively the same as having television cameras broadcast court proceedings."
Baltimore Sun editorial blog, Second Opinion, responded to the ban, arguing the restriction is both false and ineffective. It is false, they write, because restricting social networking does not follow the ethical reasons for restricting broadcasting. Moreover, in a trial where the public has already been allowed to watch trial proceedings, ordering them to step outside the building before tweeting what is going on rather than doing it in the hallway doesn’t affect the safety or conduct of the trial.
“It is easy to imagine circumstances that justify at least some limits on video broadcasts of trials,” the Sun editors write. As StinkyJournalism wrote in our piece on the Proposition 8 trial, the safety of witnesses or defendants, of course, can merit banning cameras, or even banning reporters and the public from viewing certain parts of a trial. Judge Holland’s restriction, however, applies to cases where the trial has already been deemed safe enough that the public is allowed to attend. As in the ban of cameras from Proposition 8, Holland’s order does not function as a protection device for trial participants; it simply changes the distance that trial spectators have to walk to share their experience of the court.
This makes little sense, Second Opinion writes, arguing,
This order extends the scope of the restrictions from the courtroom to the entire courthouse, and at that point, any justification for them ends. It is impossible to imagine a situation in which posting information on Twitter from the hallway outside of a courtroom would be in the least bit disruptive, or that forcing someone to walk outside the courthouse before tweeting would do anything to enhance security. The absurdity of the court's order is underscored by the impossibility of enforcing it. Rather than tweeting from the hallway, a court observer could simply call someone outside and have him or her post the same information on a social networking site. The order doesn't stop someone from posting information directly onto a blog, or a television or radio reporter from calling the station and providing updates from the hallway live on the air.
As Sara Libby writes at True Slant,
Any restriction on media in the courtroom is supposed to take the most limited route so as to uphold the First Amendment – for example, instead of a blanket ban on reporters in a certain case, a judge can choose to have reporters simply not hear specific portions involving sensitive information.
“The presumption in any question of access to the court and to any information about the proceedings in court must be weighted in favor of openness,” the Sun editors write. So, failing to lend any greater security to a trial, the ban does not seem to offer an ethical benefit greater than the harm done to the fundamental ethics of an open courtroom and a free press.
Their full response is available here.
We have contacted the court to ask for comment from Judge Holland on these issues raised by the Baltimore Sun and will update with any response.