William Balfour is currently on trial for the murder of the mother, brother and seven-year-old nephew of actress Jennifer Hudson, which took place on Chicago’s South Side in 2008. The trial judge, Charles Burns, has issued an edict that forbids reporters from using social media outlets like Twitter (News - Alert) to broadcast news from the trial.
“Tweeting takes away from the dignity of a courtroom,” said Irv Miller, Judge Burns’ media liaison. “The judge doesn’t want the trial to turn into a circus.”
Is the sound of tapping on a smartphone more intrusive than the scratching of a reporter’s pencil on a notepad? In the past, when something sensational happened during a trial, reporters had to wait for a break in the action to leave the courtroom and phone in the news. With Twitter, reporters can broadcast trial developments the instant that they happen.
Some advocates are concerned that tweeting trial tidbits could cause important information to be taken out of context. Does that concern, however, mean that a government official can take away First Amendment rights?
According to previous Supreme Court rulings, the answer is “no.” The Supreme Court, in 1947, stated that “what transpires in the courtroom is public property.” The Court has also said that judges shouldn’t place restrictions on the freedoms traditionally exercised by the news media.
On the other hand, judges traditionally have wide latitude concerning how they govern their courtrooms. While many try to work out policies with the media before the start of a trial, judges occasionally lay down a policy that the media finds too strict. Judges want to maintain the decorum and solemnity of their surroundings. Does sending a tweet from a smartphone, as Judge Burns suggests, disrupt the dignity of the courtroom?
According to Lyle Denniston, a blogger for the National Constitution Center, the reason for banning social media from the courtroom has to be objective rather than subjective. If tweeting, for instance, somehow kept the defendant from receiving a fair trial, then the practice might be questionable. The courts have not sufficiently taken into account the influence that social media and online news sources could have on a jury.
On the other hand, nothing could be more invasive than allowing live footage of a trial, and judges have a long history of allowing cameras into the courtroom. When compared to the lack of decorum posed by the presence of television cameras, a mere tweet seems almost inconsequential.
Edited by Jennifer Russell