Be aware tweeting allowed in some courtrooms but not others

This is another in a series of articles by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press covering legal issues that affect journalists. RCFP’s McCormick Legal Fellow Jamie Schuman wrote this article.

George Zimmerman, right, stands with his attorneys, Mark O’Mara, left, and Don West, center, as they watch the jury enter the courtroom on the 17th day of Zimmerman’s trial in Seminole circuit court, Tuesday, July 2, 2013, in Sanford, Florida. Zimmerman was eventually acquitted of second-degree murder in the 2012 shooting death of Trayvon Martin. (AP Photo/Orlando Sentinel, Joe Burbank, Pool)

At George Zimmerman’s trial last summer, Orlando Sentinel reporter Rene Stutzman wrote traditional stories but also tweeted courtroom highlights sometimes more than 50 times a day.

“It provided pieces of information to followers of Twitter who wouldn’t otherwise be looking at more conventional news sources, like reading the newspaper or watching an evening newscast,” Stutzman said.

While the circuit court in Seminole County, Florida, let reporters use Twitter to cover the Trayvon Martin murder trial, many judges ban courtroom tweets. They say the practice can distract people at hearings or impede the defendant’s right to a fair trial. But as tweeting becomes more routine across newsrooms, many crime reporters want to use the technology in courtrooms, too.

“Gone are the days when we had the luxury of waiting until 9 p.m. to provide a single story for the print product,” said Henry Lee, crime reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. “Now we have deadlines that are around the clock.”

Many judges do not agree that courtroom tweets should be permitted. Federal courts, many of which do not allow laptops and cell phones in courtrooms, have been especially slow to let reporters tweet from hearings. Some state judges do not allow it, either.

Courts normally have policies that govern electronic devices, but those rules do not often provide definitive answers on whether Twitter is permitted. Each judge usually has the power to decide if and when social media is allowed in his or her courtroom.

At the state courthouse in Chicago, it’s a given that reporters can tweet from hearings except in high-profile cases, where judges sometimes place limits, said Chicago Sun-Times reporter Rummana Hussain. But Lee said in the nine Bay Area counties that he covers, most courtrooms frown on the practice.


A lawyer’s view on courtroom tweeting

Eric P. Robinson, co-director of the Press Law and Democracy Project at Louisiana State University, advises journalists to get permission before tweeting from the courtroom unless the judge has a clear policy on the matter.

“They should never just assume they can do it because that could just lead to trouble,” Robinson said. “You don’t want to be held in contempt.”

Robinson, who writes on courtroom tweeting for the Digital Media Law Project at Harvard University, recommends that journalists first ask the court’s public information officer for permission. If no one is in that job, reporters should contact the clerk for the entire court or for the individual judge on the case, he said.

Journalists should only reach out to the judge directly if they know him or her and if that practice is accepted in their community, Robinson said.

“The courts are all about procedure and protocol,” he said. “It increases your chances of getting what you want when you follow their way of doing things.”

If reporters get pushback, they should argue that courts have long been open to the public, and Twitter is the next step in that tradition, Robinson said. They also could stress that tweets will not distract others in the courtroom, and they could show “strength in numbers” by advocating with other journalists, he added.

A lawsuit, he said, is a last resort.

Stories from the field

Courts reporters say Twitter helps them beat the competition, provide snippets of color, and connect with audience members who live far away but have an interest in the case.

“It’s a marketing tool,” Stutzman said. “I’m trying to drive traffic to our website.”

Stutzman’s Zimmerman case tweets included descriptions of trial participants’ expressions, excerpts from closing remarks, updates on scheduling and pictures of protesters outside the court.

Court officials at the trial were initially hesitant to allow tweeting, but reached a compromise that let people do so on touch screens only, said Michelle Kennedy, public information officer at the 18th Judicial Circuit. That avoided the problem of noisy keyboards.

Hussain said it is sometimes helpful for reporters to go directly to the judge – especially if they know him – and explain what they want to do.

“Some judges are over 60 or over 70,” she said. “They might not necessarily know what Twitter is.”

For the trial in the murder of actress Jennifer Hudson’s family members, Hussain asked the judge about four times to lift his Twitter ban. He ultimately let reporters use the media from an overflow room only, but Hussain said she would sometimes tweet from inside the courtroom during recess.

Lee, of The Chronicle, can be even more brazen. If he sees competitors surreptitiously tweeting, he said he will put his iPhone under a folder and do the same. He also sometimes tries to sit in a “blind spot” where the sheriff’s deputy won’t see him, or hides behind a large person and tweets away.

“It’s like you’re angling for a good movie seat,” Lee said. “In my case, I’m maximizing my ability to tweet even if there is an official rule against that.”

Lee’s strategy seems to be working. In 2010, he published a book based largely on his live blog of an Oakland murder trial. The book, Presumed Dead: A True-Life Murder Mystery, uses many of the colorful tidbits that he captured in his posts a couple years earlier.

“A good reason I was able to write the book was because I was able to live blog from the courtroom in real time,” Lee said.

Related: Who owns your Twitter followers | Hyperlinking could help journalists in defamation lawsuits | How to use FOIA laws to find stories, deepen sourcing | How Courtney Love and U.S.’s first Twitter libel trial could impact journalists

Correction: An earlier version of this story had a different name for the Press Law and Democracy Project at LSU. Also, Eric P. Robinson did not write the Digital Media Law Project guide but rather writes on courtroom tweeting for the project.

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