Does it make sense for a judge to allow blogging but ban tweeting from the courtroom? That was the question in a recent Massachusetts murder trial, and the judge’s explanation of why he did it has failed to satisfy media observers.
The recent first-degree murder trial of Nathaniel Fujita attracted national media to Superior Court Judge Peter Lauriat’s courtroom. Fujita, 20, was convicted March 7 of brutally murdering his former high school girlfriend.
Given the media interest in the case, Judge Lauriat no doubt faced a difficult challenge in balancing the right of the media to be present in the courtroom against the need to maintain order and decorum. Even so, his decision about how to handle courtroom coverage left some observers scratching their heads.
Initially, the judge banned tweeting during the trial from anywhere in the Middlesex Superior Courthouse in Woburn, not just from within the courtroom. Two Boston media outlets, WCVB Channel 5 and WBZ Radio, challenged the order. After a Feb. 19 hearing on the media challenge, Judge Lauriat eased up slightly on the ban, allowing reporters to tweet from a separate media room in the courthouse, but still banning tweeting from the courtroom.
The ban on tweeting drew the unavoidable question: What’s the diffference? The judge allowed blogging from the courtroom, television cameras in the courtroom, and what he described as the “pencil press” in the courtroom. Why draw the line at Twitter? As Timothy Madden, the Bingham McCutchen lawyer representing the media outlets, put it:
The issue that my client is concerned with, Your Honor, is with respect to tweeting and posting to social media sites, is that, is that it views those activities as no different than blogging from the courtroom, … it’s simply a form of communication that I think has been, is sort of ubiquitous in our society today.
Judge Lauriat was clearly skeptical of Twitter. When told that journalists regularly use Twitter to report from courtrooms, he asked, “And what is it that [they] disseminate in what I understand to be a hundred and forty character maximum amount with Twitter?”
In the end, his explanation for banning Twitter focused primarily on SJC Rule 1:19, a Massachusetts court rule adopted last year to govern the use of technology in courtrooms. (Note: I was part of the committee that helped draft the rule.)
The rule requires reporters to register with the SJC’s Public Information Office in order to use technology such as computers or cameras. Judge Lauriat focused on this registration requirement:
We have three court officers assigned to this first-degree murder case; that is all there are available. We have three court officers to ensure the safety of the jury, the attention of the jury, the safety and attention of the parties, the, if you will, organization of the court. And what [we] don’t have quite frankly because we don’t have money is a court officer to sit and full time monitor the audience, and to determine who of the fifty people in the audience is, one, an authorized representative of a news media with credentials; two, doing something appropriate that the news media is authorized to do under Rule 1:19, or none of the above, but nonetheless — for example, an individual who decides the person next to me is tweeting; I think I’ll tweet.
I don’t have the staff, we don’t have the personnel to sit with each person in the back of the courtroom and decide who may appropriately tweet, if that were to be allowed, and who may not because they’re not a member of the credentialed news media.
Below is the transcript of the hearing on the tweeting issue. In an age when judges frequently must wrestle with the intersection of social media and the courtroom, it makes for a fascinating read.