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Mass. rule in ‘forefront’ of country’s electronic access court rules

Massachusetts electronic access in courts rule is in the “forefront” of state courts, SJC Public Information Officer Joan Kenney said to me this past February. The state has a history of progressive thinking when it comes to technology use in courtrooms, Neil Ungerleider has said. The state was one of the first to adopt a rule allowing use of cameras – the original Rule 1:19 made it on the books in the 1980s. While most other state courts do allow camera usage, many do not permit use of electronic devices for reporting.

“It’s easy for reporters who work in this state to forget that the access that they have is really unique and that while some states have cameras, this may be one of the few of only states that allow the use of the electronic devices,” Ungerleider said.

Meanwhile, lawyer and blogger Robert Ambrogi, who researched equivalent or similar technological access rules of other state judiciaries while on the Rule 1:19 Subcommittee, found that most states do not extend to the lengths the new Massachusetts rule does. Massachusetts is one of the few states that allow two video cameras in a courtroom at a time, and one of the few that specifically grants that permission to citizen journalists in the language of the court rule.

Massachusetts is ahead of the federal courts in terms of electronic access. Federal courts do not allow the use of cameras except in specific federal district courts that are part of a pilot program similar to OpenCourt’s project in Quincy District Court. Cameras have never been allowed in the U.S. Supreme Court.

“The federal court system is woefully behind the times in terms of allowing cameras in the courtrooms,” Ambrogi said. “We’re still guided by a U.S. Supreme Court that has said not over their dead bodies will they ever let cameras in the Supreme Court. So I think Massachusetts is ahead on this.”

Other state judiciaries’ rules on cameras in courtrooms vary widely. For example, Oklahoma, which previously banned cameras in its courtrooms in its Code of Judicial Conduct, superseded the relevant rule in April 2011. That state now has no formal rules on the books at all regarding camera usage in courtrooms.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Wisconsin, which permits three television and three still camera operators to be in courts with approval from the judge. Mississippi is also highly permissive when it comes to camera use in state courts; individual use of one television camera, one video recorder, one audio recording system and one still camera is permitted in the same courtroom given at least two days notice to the presiding judge.

Only a few states explicitly permit use of electronic devices, and even then, intended use of the device, whether for note taking or reporting, makes a difference in the permissibility of its use. Reporters in Nevada, for example, can freely use electronic devices for note taking, but need to get judge approval before using those same devices to live blog or broadcast court proceedings. In other states, reporters’ use of electronic devices is limited to cameras and audio recorders used for note taking.

Thirty-five states explicitly permit use of cameras in courtrooms, while 14 other states partially allow camera use depending upon the circumstances. In the majority of states that explicitly permit camera usage, only one videographer and one photographer can be in the courtroom at any time. (For more specifics, see the Radio Television Digital News Association’s State-by-State Guide).

The District of Columbia is the lone region of the United States that outright bans camera usage in the courtrooms in its jurisdiction. Thirty-five states allow some form of audio or video webcast from the court as well, though those 35 states are not all the same 35 that explicitly permit use of cameras; some states that only allow camera use in specific circumstances have also allowed webcasts under special circumstances.

While Joan Kenney, the SJC’s public information officer, has said that Rule 1:19 is still a “work in progress,” Massachusetts is leaps and bounds ahead of other states and sets a strong example of how a state judiciary might handle electronic access to the courtroom. Considering the successes of the OpenCourt project in particular while it lasted, regular live streaming and blogging, citizen journalism reporting and camera usage in courtrooms can become the norm of courtrooms in Massachusetts.

“It [OpenCourt] was a pilot project scheduled to last for a particular period of time, and intended to explore different issues that came up in the context of introducing full-time video recording into courtrooms,” said Jeff Hermes, director of the Digital Media Law Project. “In that regard, I think it was a tremendous success,”

While Massachusetts might lag behind some states in terms of access to the courts, the new updates to Rule 1:19 have ultimately been a victory for Massachusetts press freedom.

“I think the SJC, that court, started to come to the realization that the rules on technology in the courts were outmoded if not even nonexistent for the most part,” said Ambrogi of the Rule 1:19 updates. “I think this was seen as an opportunity to modernize the rules to apply to the kind of technology that reporters are using today. I think it’s also an attempt to recognize that even the definition of a reporter is changing and to acknowledge the idea that … bloggers and citizen journalists can also be members of the news media as well.”

Updates to Mass. electronic court access rule make permissibility of tech usage uniform

It’s not the inclusion of citizen journalists or the expansion of permissible technology usage in courtrooms for reporting that makes the recent updates to Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) Rule 1:19 so worthwhile. The most important thing is the existence of a rule about technology usage itself, said judiciary-media committee member Bob Ambrogi.

“There really hadn’t been [a set rule] before, and so what that meant was that, from courtroom to courtroom, from judge to judge, you’d get different standards being applied,” he said. “It wasn’t that you couldn’t do this stuff before, but there was no easy way to know how to do it, and the judges would have their own standards on this.”

A lawyer and blogger, Ambrogi has been a member of the judiciary-media committee for about 9 years. He is also the executive director of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association, and was on the subcommittee that researched and proposed potential updates to Rule 1:19.

The SJC approached the judiciary-media committee to explore possible changes to the rule after many citizen journalists inquired about technology usage in the courtroom, Ambrogi said.

“The SJC started to come to the realization that the rules on technology in the courts were outmoded if not even nonexistent for the most part. Although there was a rule on camera in the courts, it didn’t really address newer technologies that were being used in the courts,” he said. “So I think this was seen as an opportunity to modernize the rules to apply to the kind of technology that reporters are using today.

“I think it’s also an attempt to recognize that even the definition of a reporter is changing, and to acknowledge the idea that the news media aren’t just necessarily people who work for formal news organizations like the papers and television stations, but bloggers and citizen journalists can also be members of the news media as well and should be covered under the rule.”

While subcommittee members eventually agreed on the include of citizen journalists, some expressed concerns that allowing anyone to use cameras in the courts might make it easier for gang members to identify and intimidate witnesses, Ambrogi said.

“Judges are very cognizant of that,” he said. “I think that’s why to some extent the concern with this rule is it’s really much less about the mainstream media than it is about the fact that the definition of the media is changing so much that if you’re going to allow wider use of technology and photography in the courtroom, you have to put some constraints around it to prevent the possibility of abuse by people who are not really journalists but who are there for some other reason.”

The solution came in the form of a registration system: If a journalist fills out a registration form and submits it to the SJC’s public information office, then that journalist can bring a camera or electronic device into a courtroom as long as he or she shows an acknowledgment form upon entering the courthouse. The registration system allows the SJC to keep track of everyone who uses cameras and electronic devices in Massachusetts courtrooms without requiring journalists to have professional credentials to gain electronic access.

“Journalists in general have a strong resistance to any kind of formal credentialing system in the sense that no journalist wants the government deciding who is a journalist and who has the right to report the news, and the First Amendment treats everybody equally in terms of their ability to cover what’s going on in the courts,” Ambrogi said. “There’s not even a distinction between journalists and average citizens. Anywhere a journalist has access, it’s the same access any citizen has to the courts and to report on what’s going on in the courts.”

But judges also have to address concerns about potential harm to testifying witnesses and protecting defendants’ rights, he said.

“At the same time, under this rule, the court system really felt it needed to have control over the use of technology because technology is something that can be abused in the courtroom in some ways,” he said.

The rule forms a balancing approach between the two concerns. The updates were “probably overdue,” Ambrogi said, and he’s not sure if they go far enough in granting liberty to journalists. However, he also noted that Massachusetts courts are quite progressive in granting electronic courtroom access.

“In the process of drafting this rule, I did personally look at what other states were doing and try to find examples from other states of rules that they had drafted to speak to this issue of technology and bloggers and whatnot in the courtroom, and very few states have really done it,” he said. “Of course the federal court system is woefully behind the times in terms of allowing cameras in the courtrooms. We’re still guided by a U.S. Supreme Court that has said not over their dead bodies will they ever let cameras in the Supreme Court. So I think Massachusetts is ahead on this.”

In his capacity as the MNPA executive director, he brings concerns of journalists in the field to the judiciary-media committee. He said he hasn’t heard of any issues with the rule since it went into effect last September.

“I think it’s going well,” he said. “Time will tell.”

The Massachusetts reporter’s privilege

Massachusetts is one of the 10 states without a shield law on the books, joining a small minority that interpret the so-called “reporter’s privilege” under case law. While the U.S. Supreme Court has denied the existence of a constitutionally protected reporter’s privilege, states legislatures are free to enact laws that give more rights to journalists than the baseline fundamental rights granted in the United States Constitution. Currently 40 states and the District of Columbia have statutory shield laws in effect.

The Massachusetts reporter’s privilege is confusing and open to interpretation, but ultimately Massachusetts courts have acknowledged a limited reporter’s privilege. Massachusetts common law protects reporter’s privilege when the reporter’s interest in protecting his source’s identity outweighs the government’s or private lawsuit party’s interest in procuring evidence. Courts are more inclined to protect information gathered from confidential sources than sources who have spoken on the record, however.

A First Circuit appellate court decision from 1998 acknowledged the existence of a limited reporter’s privilege to protect his sources. In Cusumano v. Microsoft, the First Circuit court determined that Microsoft Corporation could not compel two academic researchers to produce research materials for a book concerning an antitrust lawsuit Microsoft was involved in. The court established a balancing test for a limited First Amendment privilege of protecting confidential information.

Quoting United States v. LaRouche Campaign, the court said when district courts must decide whether to enforce requests for discovery production of materials used “in the preparation of journalistic reports,” the courts should “be aware of the possibility that the unlimited or unthinking allowance of such requests will impinge upon First Amendment rights.” To determine how discovery requests should be limited, if at all, those courts “must balance the potential harm to the free flow of information that might result against the asserted need for the requested information.”

Importantly, the court also declined to limit the applicability of the protection to the traditional definition of journalists. The court noted that academic researchers and journalists share many trade similarities and therefore must both enjoy a First Amendment privilege to protection of confidential sources and information:

Courts afford journalists a measure of protection from discovery initiatives in order not to undermine their ability to gather and disseminate information. Journalists are the personification of a free press, and to withhold such protection would invite a “chilling effect on speech,” and thus destabilize the First Amendment. The same concerns suggest that courts ought to offer similar protection to academicians engaged in scholarly research. After all, scholars too are information gatherers and disseminators … Just as a journalist, stripped of sources, would write fewer, less incisive articles, an academician, stripped of sources, would be able to provide fewer, less cogent analyses. Such similarities of concern and function militate in favor of a similar level of protection for journalists and academic researchers.

There have been a few recent attempts to pass a shield law in Massachusetts. An attempt in 2007 failed in early 2008, as well as a more recent attempt by the Massachusetts Broadcasters Association in 2010. Last year, another possible shield law called the “Free Flow of Information Act” that offered protection to journalistic bloggers made the rounds in the news media before it too failed. Massachusetts still doesn’t have a shield law on the books.

While Congress has repeatedly failed to pass a federal shield law statute and the courts have ruled that the Constitution doesn’t protect a reporter’s privilege, 40 states have passed shield laws. Some may prefer legislation about reporter’s privilege at the state level. State level shield laws can account for cultural and geographic differences and conform more to the culture of the state.

The vast variety in state shield laws, however, can make things very difficult for reporters who plan to travel anywhere outside their home state to cover a story. Theoretically, a reporter would be responsible for knowing the specific laws in each state he or she covers news in. This could place an undue burden on the reporter and can hinder or discourage him from branching out and covering stories outside of his home state. Adding more to the confusion is the question of who legally qualifies as a journalist and can enjoy protection under state shield laws.

University of Oregon Professor Kyu Ho Youm wrote a brief editorial for the New York Times website following an Oregon judge’s December 2011 determination that a blogger did not qualify for shield law protection. Youm noted that a First Circuit court in a recent decision declined to dispense First Amendment protections on “professional credentials or status” alone.

“The federal court ruling reinforces the judicial reluctance to read bloggers and other journalistic outsiders (“outliers”?) into state shield law,” Youm wrote. “Judges are more likely to continue with their traditional journalist-oriented approach to source protection unless their state laws are ambiguous enough to allow them creative interpretations.”