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OpenCourt scores for press freedom

It was a balmy August day in 2012, and members of OpenCourt awaited the start of a Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court hearing that would determine the organization’s ability to expand live streamed video coverage of judicial proceedings in Quincy District Court. But more than just OpenCourt’s ability to expand was at stake; if the SJC ruled to allow OpenCourt to expand its live streaming of judicial proceedings, it could be a major win for press freedom in Massachusetts.

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The Norfolk District Attorney (DA) and the Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS) had petitioned the SJC to temporarily halt OpenCourt’s expansion into a second room at Quincy District Court pending formation and SJC approval of broadcasting guidelines. The DA argued that OpenCourt’s interim broadcasting guidelines did not offer enough protection to minors and sexual assault and domestic violence victims, while the CPCS feared violations of their clients’ constitutional rights.

So when Justice Margot Botsford issued a memorandum and judgment five days after the Aug. 9 hearing that denied the DA’s and CPCS’s petitions, OpenCourt Executive Director John Davidow felt gratified.

“The idea that prior restraint, that the state could have editorial control over something that had not yet been published, was deeply disturbing, as a member of the media,” Davidow said in a Feb. 11, 2013 interview. “We [at OpenCourt] were pleased, but mostly pleased because we felt like this was a real case of finding the proper balance between the First and Sixth Amendment.”

Though Davidow would’ve preferred to mediate issues out of court, he said the legal challenge actually benefitted OpenCourt.

“Had the district attorney’s office and other folks not objected and we had to prove our case before the SJC and make it clear that what’s public in court is public and the public should have access to it if it is recorded, we never would’ve had that opportunity” to prove the importance of public access, Davidow said. “In many ways it was helpful to get the clarity that came with these suits filed by the district attorney … it made us sharpen our understanding of the issues around it.”

OpenCourt, a pilot project in Quincy District Court for use of cameras in the courtroom under SJC Rule 1:19 run through Boston NPR channel WBUR, started merely as an idea at a media judiciary committee meeting Davidow participated in sometime in fall 2009. As interest in the idea grew, Davidow extensively researched use of cameras in courtrooms around the country, taking time to speak with many judiciary and media law organizations and judicial officers. Davidow submitted a proposal for the project, then named “Order in the Court 2.0,” to the Knight Foundation’s News Challenge as one of 2,364 hopeful applicants. In June 2010, the Knight Foundation announced OpenCourt as one of its News Challenge winners that year. Following approval from the SJC, OpenCourt went live in Quincy District Court on May 2, 2011.

“I think that there were all sorts of concerns initially, that we were going to give up people’s identities, lawyers and prosecutors would act differently because the cameras were on, judges may not accept pleas that they normally would, and … people not willing to come forward because there were cameras in the courtroom,” Davidow said. “All those things never really truly materialized.”

The main issue OpenCourt encountered in its early days was what to do with archival footage. Almost immediately, people challenged OpenCourt on the archives issue, Davidow said, so OpenCourt temporarily shut down access to its archives until it came up with a policy addressing the concerns. It is now OpenCourt’s practice to not post archival footage until two business days have passed so that anyone can express any issues with the posting of the footage. Even after the footage has been posted, OpenCourt will take it down if someone flags the video and explains the issue. Access to archival footage is free to anyone with Internet access who registers with the site.

Currently the project is on a brief hiatus as OpenCourt Producer Val Wang stepped down earlier this month. OpenCourt will resume live streaming in March. For now project members are focusing on another project that follows specific kinds of cases, Davidow said. He also hopes to expand the project, and it wouldn’t surprise him if one day the official court record is video, not audio, recordings.

“There’s a lot of interest from the courts themselves on how to deal with this,” he said. “The courts want to be more transparent. We got our strongest support from the judicial branch. I think there’s this sense of inevitability that Open Court is just somewhat ahead of the curve of where the courts are inevitably going to go.”

Davidow said he is proud of OpenCourt’s vision and what it has done to make the courts more accessible to the general public.

“The founders in this country wanted justice to be done in public,” he said. “You think of the movie ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ where the entire town is piled into that courthouse to watch that trial. That’s what the founders imagined. For a long time, the media was there, and they were that bridge to what was going on in the courts as people got more and more removed from it.

“And then, given the realities of where the media is and other technologies, the public became more and more distanced from this major branch of our government … So [OpenCourt] was one small step in bringing the courts forward, leveraging the technology that exists and is continuing to evolve.”

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