Social Media in the Courtroom: Can tweeting disrupt a trial?
By John Vettese, Student Voices staff writer
Here’s the scene: You’re sitting in a crowd in your county courthouse and the witness on the stand has just divulged a shocking piece of testimony. The crowd gasps, the defendant yells, the judge bangs the gavel, and the reporters take out their smartphones and quickly report the breaking news to Twitter.
With all these disruptions in the courtroom, where do you think the journalists’ tweeting would rank?
A judge in Cook County, Ill., thinks it is extremely distracting, and set a rule barring reporters from tweeting in the courtroom during a high-profile murder trial.
“Tweeting takes away from the dignity of a courtroom,” the judge’s spokesman, Irv Miller, said to the Associated Press. “The judge doesn’t want the trial to turn into a circus.”
While judges are permitted to impose rules of order on their courtroom, there really isn’t anything in the Constitution that would not allow reporters to tweet during a trial – the First Amendment protects freedom of the press, and the Supreme Court has in the past said that “what transpires in the courtroom is public property.”
Even so, there’s the issue of disruption – a bunch of reporters scrambling for their phones might cause a scene (or exacerbate a scene already in progress), right? Not quite, say those in favor of reporting by tweeting. Eric Zorn, a columnist with the Chicago Tribune, writes, “Reporters hunch over their smartphones and quietly jab at the keys with their thumbs. The public, then, can follow the ostensibly public proceedings in close to real time — a genuine value.”
Compare this to the old days, notes National Constitution Center blogger Lyle Denniston, when reporters would scratch notes loudly on pads of paper, or make a mad dash out to the courtroom lobby to phone an update to their editor.
But the disruption might not actually occur inside courtroom, but out in the public. Because of Twitter’s limitations, reporters will be able to get their accounts out only in bursts of 140 characters. This could lead to some shortchanging of facts, taking incidents out of context and generally cutting corners to fit the breaking news in a tweet. From there, misinformation about the trial could disseminate very quickly to the public, possibly even compromising an ideal prized by the U.S. justice system, “innocent until proven guilty.”
What do you think?
Can tweeting by reporters disrupt a trial? Does a row of reporters reaching for their phones create a scene? Or is it important to keep the public informed about developments in a trial in real time? Could tweeting during a trial unfairly affect public perceptions of a court case? Join the discussion!
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