Last September the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) updated its rule on camera usage in courtrooms, expanding the scope to citizen journalists and allowing the use of new technology for reporting purposes.
“I think they’re very timely,” SJC Public Information Officer Joan Kenney said of the changes. “I think we’re in the forefront of state courts throughout the country who are implementing new rules.”
Much of Rule 1:19 remains the same, Kenney said. But the changes now allow any professional or citizen journalist who has registered with the public information office and received permission from the presiding judge to record judicial proceedings. It also permits use of electronic devices such as smart phones, laptops and tablets, if it is not disruptive. This means journalists can now live blog a trial or hearing, for instance.
About 75 media organizations and 15 news media individuals have registered with the court. Registration is a simple process requiring an applicant to read Rule 1:19, fill out a form and submit it to the public information office.
The number of registered citizen journalists seems to be consistently lower than the number of news organizations, Kenney said.
“That number will probably grow over time,” she said.
Any member of the public is welcome to witness a judicial proceeding and take notes with pen and paper, but use of technology is limited to news media, which the new rule defines as “organizations that regularly gather, prepare, photograph, record, write, edit, report or publish news or information about matters of public interest for dissemination to the public in any medium, whether print or electronic, and to individuals who regularly perform a similar function.”
Kenney noted that the public information office does not check applicants’ credentials, but merely sends an acknowledgment that an applicant verified his or her qualification as a member of the news media on the form. The process is more of an “honor system,” she said.
“The public information office is not in the business of credentialing the journalist. The journalist decides himself whether he or she fits the definition,” Kenney said. “There had been some discussion at our meetings – this is the judiciary-media committee – about whether it should be a registration system or a credentialing system, and it was decided that it should be a registration system, not credentialing.”
The change came as a result of increasing inquiries from both judges and journalists about camera usage in courtrooms, Kenney said.
“Judges were getting requests from nontraditional media types, and citizen journalists were also asking whether they could bring in iPads and laptops, things like that to use, into the courtroom instead of just paper and pen,” Kenney said. “The court recognized that it was time to review the rule.”
The SJC later updated Rule 1:19 based on the subcommittee’s recommendations, and it went into effect on Sept. 17 of last year. The SJC is still working out the kinks of the rule, though, Kenney said.
“It is new for everyone,” she said. “It’s new for our judges, new for our clerks, new for our court officers and journalists.”
Kenney said despite the kinks in the system, Massachusetts courts are innovators in the use of technology in the courtroom.
“I know many other state judiciaries are considering making some of these changes, and maybe a few of them have, but I think we are one of the leaders in terms of reviewing our rules, updating our rules, and making them contemporary with what’s happening in society,” she said. “The rule was implemented in September. We’re taking a look at how it’s being implemented, looking at what issues that might arise from this, and it’s still very much a work in progress.”