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Rule 1:19 Subcommittee’s biggest challenge was defining ‘journalist’

After the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court approached the judiciary-media committee a few years ago requesting recommendations for updates to Rule 1:19, the Rule 1:19 subcommittee focused in on two fundamental points, said Neil Ungerleider, who co-chaired the subcommittee with Justice John Curran, now retired from Leominster District Court.

“One is that the nature of who is a journalist has changed, and secondly, the change in technology has allowed the use of electronic equipment in a way that was never before possible, and how if at all were we going to accommodate that,” Ungerleider said in a March 12 interview. “The second part was actually a little easier to deal with than the first part, the question of electronic access … The larger issue became deciding who is a journalist, and how was some order going to be brought to that process so that the people who claimed to be journalists actually were, as opposed to people just showing up off the street saying they were a journalist.”

Ungerleider, the general judiciary-media committee co-chair and the manager for WCVB-TV Digital, said it was important to extend access to citizen journalists. He sees professional and citizen journalists as the same.

“There really shouldn’t be a difference,” he said. “They [professional journalists] may reach more people, but why is a reporter for the Boston Globe more important than someone writing a weekly community blog or column or runs a community website in Winchester? Why should that person be less important? It’s kind of contrary to the First Amendment, if you will. Freedom of the press applies to everybody.”

Massachusetts has historically been progressive when it comes to cameras in the courts, having the original Rule 1:19 on the books since the 1980s, Ungerleider said. The subcommittee therefore tried to make the language in the rule as inclusive as possible, to define “even the smallest journalist,” he said.

Ultimately, the SJC approved a rule defining the “news media” 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.”

Taking that view, the Rule 1:19 subcommittee then debated how to accommodate journalists of all kinds, Ungerleider said. Some subcommittee members favored a credentialing process, especially expressing fears that gang members could intimidate witnesses, he said. The subcommittee eventually chose a registration approach instead, requiring news organizations and citizen journalists to fill out a form and submit it to the Public Information Office.

“There is that safeguard, if you will, that the registration process was designed to put in place so that a gang member can’t bring an iPhone into the courtroom,” he said. “A reporter can because they’ve showed the registration when they go in if they’re asked for it.”

Since the updates went into effect in September 2012, Ungerleider has said he’s seen a positive reception from WCVB-TV readers and viewers who can get live updates from the courtroom. Since reporters can use electronic devices such as laptops, cell phones and tablets in reporting from the courtroom, live blogging and Tweeting a trial as it is in progress can put news consumers in the middle of the judicial proceedings as they happen.

“The ability of our reporters to do that is very much welcomed and appreciated on our website because [readers] come … in pretty significant numbers,” Ungerleider said. “The expectation on the part of people who are looking for news has changed. They expect it in real time. They expect it with immediacy. They expect it when it’s happening. And the rule change has allowed us to do that.”

The ability to live blog judicial proceedings is somewhat unique to Massachusetts, Ungerleider said. Blogging, citizen journalism of proceedings and other new reporting ventures possible thanks to technology have transformed Massachusetts reporters’ expectations of covering the courts.

Additionally, the updates to Rule 1:19 coincidentally lined up with the emergence of Twitter and live blogging in reporting, coming at “just the right time,” he said

“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. “That’s something that’s not happening anywhere else in the country. So this is a very unique set of circumstances that exist in this state.”

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.”

Mass. court rule lets traditional, citizen journalists use technology in courts

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’s judiciary-media committee formed a subcommittee to explore possible revisions to the old rule, which dated back to the 1980s, and recommend what should be changed, if any, Kenney said.

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.”

Camera use in federal courtrooms

The media’s use of technology has evolved since the ‘60s, but on the federal level, courts have struggled to keep up with the rapidly changing industry. The courts are naturally more slow-moving than the media, whose success hinges on having the latest information as soon as possible. Even today, the use of cameras in federal criminal courtrooms of all levels is strictly prohibited, except in the Second and Ninth Circuit Appeals courts and in rare pilot programs the federal system has implemented, once in the ‘90s, and once again for  a three-year trial period starting in 2011 in 14 federal district courts.

I’ve previously explored the U.S. Supreme Court’s extreme hesitancy to allow use of cameras during the ‘60s, but one particular case deserves reexamination from that post.

In the 1965 case of Estes v. Texas, the court threw out a conviction because a trial judge had allowed about a dozen reporters to videotape a pretrial hearing. The U.S. Supreme Court played up the self-consciousness cameras can create for everyone involved – lawyers, judges and witnesses posturing to the camera, trying their best to impress rather than to get at the truth. At that point in time, 48 state courts and the federal courts had banned camera use in courtrooms.

The use of cameras in the criminal courtroom is an inherent denial of due process, the court said:

The television camera is a powerful weapon. Intentionally or inadvertently it can destroy an accused and his case in the eyes of the public … We have already examined the ways in which public sentiment can affect the trial participants. To the extent that television shapes that sentiment, it can strip the accused of a fair trial.

The court refused to consider the possibility of a future where camera usage did not automatically render a judicial proceeding inherently unfair. Instead, the court wrote, “Our judgment cannot be rested on the hypothesis of tomorrow but must take the facts as they are presented today. The judgment is therefore reversed.”

But in the next decades that followed, camera technology rapidly improved and even American ownership of televisions increased dramatically.

This set the scene for the 1981 U.S.  Supreme Court decision Chandler v. Florida. A criminally convicted defendant challenged a Florida state law that allowed camera usage in criminal courtrooms, charging that camera use had resulted in an unfair trial.

Upon decision, the Supreme Court declined to directly overturn Estes, concluding that it “did not announce a constitutional rule that all photographic or broadcast coverage of criminal trials is inherently a denial of due process.” But in practice, the court did in fact overturn the spirit of the Estes decision. The court also declined to establish a First Amendment right to use cameras in a criminal courtroom. Instead, the court rooted its decision in the concept of federalism, that federal government and state governments are both sovereign. Painting the decision as a states’ rights issue instead of a First Amendment issued, the court said:

It is not necessary either to ignore or to discount the potential danger to the fairness of a trial in a particular case in order to conclude that Florida may permit the electronic media to cover trials in its state courts. Dangers lurk in this, as in most experiments, but unless we were to conclude that television coverage under all conditions is prohibited by the Constitution, the states must be free to experiment. We are not empowered by the Constitution to oversee or harness state procedural experimentation; only when the state action infringes fundamental guarantees are we authorized to intervene.

Currently every state in the U.S. allows some use of cameras in courtrooms. Mississippi and South Dakota, the last holdouts, changed their camera use policies in 2001. Currently the federal courts allow the public access to audio recordings, and all the 14 district courts (for example, the Northern District of California) have archived copies of some videotaped judicial proceedings accessible online. The federal Cameras in Courts project will last up to 2014, which the Federal Judicial Center will conduct a study of that will determine the fate of camera usage in federal courtrooms in the future.