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Judge rules for Twitter, Facebook use in Massachusetts court

News by Jordan Crook on Tuesday May 03, 2011.

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The Associated Press is reporting on a forward-looking experiment that is underway in one of the oldest, and most traditional, states in our nation. The Quincy District Court in Massachusetts is allowing, and perhaps welcoming, the use of laptops, iPads, and smartphones by bloggers and citizen journalists during court proceedings, for the purpose of live-blogging, tweeting, and sharing via Facebook. And the name of this unprecedented experiment: the "OpenCourt" project.

As new technology spreads faster than wildfire and more and more individuals take it upon themselves to report news and engage in media, the experiment hopes to address digital media and the future of media as it relates to court proceedings in general. The pilot project in Quincy goes beyond what we've ever seen out of courtroom media coverage. While some states allow cameras or streaming coverage of supreme court arguments, the Quincy project will allow the live streaming broadcast of continuous court proceedings, all day long, without edits. In a sight unheard of to most members of the media, the courtroom will be uncharacteristically welcoming to bloggers and citizen journalists, even offering a special Wi-Fi connection seating area.

"In the past, reporters were the connection to the nation's courts, but with the changes in the media landscape, there are just less and less journalists who are that bridge to the public," said John Davidow, executive producer of the "OpenCourt" project. "At the same time, there's been the proliferation of reporting tools that are in the hands of all citizens, including iPhones and other smartphones that can record. People can Tweet, blog, report. The idea is to bring the courts and what goes on in the courts closer to the people so they understand how the law and the justice system work in this country," he said.

Most judges, jurors, and lawyers are restricted from the use of digital technology and social media to an extent, so the tools introduced in this project are not necessarily something the legal world has embraced in the past. In fact, there have been cases where the use of portable electronic devices have caused mistrials and overturned convictions. Last year, "Twitter instructions" were given to federal judges to read aloud to jurors, prohibiting them from visiting blogs, social websites, or internet chat rooms, and from the use of electronic devices with any relation to their cases.

While many are glad to see such a traditional institution open its doors to the future, there are two sides to every argument, and the "OpenCourt" project is no exception. Some citizens involved in court cases aren't exactly thrilled to have their personal business broadcast on the internet. Lawyers, too, aren't totally comfortable with the idea, despite the fact that the project provides dead zones, where conversations between lawyer and client won't be picked up by the microphones. "I'm not overly fond of the idea," said Richard Sweeney, a Quincy defense attorney who regularly defends criminal clients in the courtroom, now newly wired. "I think there are a lot of pitfalls. I understand and respect the concept - they want an open court. In this era of everyone having cellphones and videos, I can understand that, but it's fraught with perils for attorneys with conversations that can be picked up."

In the past, courtrooms were meant to be a public forum, where people could come and go as they pleased to see what was happening in their town or city. Life has changed since then, and the ubiquity of new media has made it possible to get almost any information at the drop of a hat. The OpenCourt project is an attempt to compromise the old with the new, by letting technology keep us up-to-date with the legal proceedings in our area, and around the country through the media we use the most, the internet.

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