Editorial: Twitter in the court?

Posted: July 17, 2010

If state Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille were a fan of social networking, he might use Twitter, Facebook, or a similar online service to throw out this question to cyberspace: Should the Pennsylvania courts be opened up to citizens in ways more in step with the 21st century?

The answer should be obvious, as the chief justice no doubt would learn by a likely flood of positive online responses. Castille has at least begun exploring that question in a more traditional way, by directing that a Supreme Court committee come up with policy recommendations.

In a wired world, the Pennsylvania courts remain almost quaint in their insularity. Television cameras rarely are allowed, as they are in many other states. Indeed, a court rule goes far beyond that, barring "the transmission of communications by telephone, radio, television, or advanced communications technology from the hearing room or the courtroom."

To follow a trial, citizens have to walk through the courtroom doors and take a seat, or wait to read an account on a newspaper website or in print. That hasn't changed in about two centuries, but it's about time that it did.

Castille's move to study the issue follows a recent ruling by a Montgomery County judge who ordered cell phones removed from the courtroom during a high-profile trial. Journalists covering the case on June 8 who hoped to issue up-to-the-minute bulletins via cell phones and other digital devices suddenly were stripped of these modern devices.

In that sense, reporters were little better equipped than the fictional scribe Hildy Johnson in the stage play The Front Page - still having to dash from a courtroom to relay breaking news.

Just as the courts should be open to television cameras with certain restrictions, they should also permit the use of nonintrusive messaging devices, with few exceptions.

There are limits to openness, of course. Jurors should not have digital devices during a trial, nor access to any stream of messages. Their job is to focus on the testimony and evidence presented in court.

Castille appears prepared to let journalists have greater access to social-networking tools, as he should. But the chief justice expresses concern over the potential for witness intimidation with trial updates leaving the courtroom, along with camera-phone snapshots. In cases where that's a concern, though, judges should be given the discretion to limit the torrent of digital information sent from a courtroom.

However, opening the courts to greater public scrutiny is also in the interests of justice.

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