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Courtroom Twitter Ban Infringes on Citizenship

In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense.”

The above excerpt is the Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution, and it’s one of my personal favorites, as it serves as the basis for our legal system — perhaps the most important part of any effective democracy.

The right to a public trial dates back to old Europe, where someone could be thrown in prison at the behest of a judge with no means to save themselves from judicial tyranny. Today, the concept of a public trial serves as a form of accountability; to ensure that the legal process is carried out effectively, to encourage a higher level of honesty in testimony, and to propagate true justice in the public eye.

As former Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black put it, “Whatever other benefits the guarantee to an accused that his trial be conducted in public may confer upon our society, the guarantee has always been recognized as a safeguard against any attempt to employ our courts as instruments of persecution.”

On the forefront of protecting this right have been journalists — or rather, the media at large. A courtroom can only seat so many people, and in the case of Jerry Sandusky, the Centre County Courthouse has room for only 200 spectators. It is with that practicality in mind that courtroom media do their jobs, particularly in cases that demand significant attention.

Indeed, in the 1981 Chandler v Florida case, the United States Supreme Court ruled that a “ban on broadcast coverage of trials cannot be justified.” This effectively left the decision of such matters up to the states.

Thanks to those hippy, free-thinking law-makers in California, the O.J. Simpson trial was broadcast live every day on national television for millions of people to see. Hell, even Florida — a state where no one has ever accused them of having a proficient judicial system — allowed the Casey Anthony trial to be live-streamed across the country.

Welcome to Pennsylvania, a state so screwed up that you can’t even buy two cases of beer at the bottle shop at the same time. According to the Pennsylvania Code of Judicial Conduct, “judges should prohibit broadcasting, televising, recording or taking photographs in the courtroom and areas immediately adjacent thereto during sessions of court or recesses between sessions.”

Luckily, Judge John Cleland used to be a reasonable man. He issued a decorum order for the media back in December, which allows credentialed reporters to “live Tweet” the proceedings. In the order, listed among other reasons, Judge Cleland states, “…permitting Tweeting will enhance the news gathering capabilities of reporters, which is in the public interest.”

He was right. Throughout the pre-trial hearings, reporters kept citizens informed with up-to-the-second commentary and reporting from inside the courtroom. It provided the public with real-time information, and ensured a true public trial, as guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment. For most people with a Twitter account, the actual news stories published after the proceedings were subsidiary to the live coverage.

So it came as quite a shock a week ago when Judge Cleland issued another decorum order prohibiting the transmission of verbatim testimony from the trial. The ruling stated, “[Electronic] devices may not be used…to broadcast any verbatim account of the proceedings while court is in session.”

Suddenly, the difference between “broadcasting” and “Tweeting” became skewed. How would it be possible to accurately and responsibly disseminate information to the public if direct quotes could not be used from the proceedings?

Two days later, thirteen media companies filed for clarification of the decorum order and requested Judge Cleland to reconsider his ruling on prohibiting direct quotations. The media entities made the argument that not allowing verbatim transmissions would “diminish the accuracy of their reports” and that such a restriction would be “impractical and difficult to implement.”

A ruling was made three days later by Judge Cleland that no one could have predicted. Cleland ruled not only to deny the media’s request, but to go one step further and prohibit Tweeting and all other electronic transmissions entirely. Judge Cleland explained, “…the standard I applied in my definition [of verbatim transmissions] is confusing to reporters, unworkable, and, therefore, likely unenforceable.”

What the fuck?

Imagine a kid in the candy shop with their mother. The mother allows the kid to have a piece of candy, but nothing made of chocolate. The kid asks the mother politely if he could have a tootsie roll instead. Rather than say yes or no, the mother decides to drag the kid, kicking and screaming, out of the store without buying anything.

Essentially, Judge Cleland is the impatient mother.

Certainly given Pennsylvania’s nonsensical courtroom broadcasting laws, millions of people across the country will be relying on the 200 reporters in Bellefonte for their accounts of this historic case — whose jobs are so much more important since broadcasting is prohibited. But instead of granting the public access to real-time updates, Judge Cleland is stepping over his own line and trampling on the nature of a public trial. Rather than utilize the instant dissemination practices that have revolutionized media over the last decade, Cleland is taking us back decades in the way people communicate. At least the public can take solace in the fact that we don’t have to wait for the morning paper the next day to read about the case, right?

Imagine 200 overweight reporters stampeding across the courtyard into the local Dairy Queen during recess to steal WiFi and file reports. Because that will be reality for the better part of a month as competing media outlets rush to get their stories out to the public in large waves every few hours during court recesses.

Citizenship is about actively seeking the truth, and holding people accountable. Restricting the press and closing the courts is a direct attack on active citizenship, and one that Judge Cleland is openly  propagating. I’m certain that the media coverage will still be spectacular, but this error in judgement is a large vice, and a disservice to anyone who finds value in the free press.

The Judge giveth and The Judge taketh away, I suppose.

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About the Author

Kevin Horne

Kevin Horne was the editor of Onward State from 2012-2014 and currently holds the position of Managing Editor Emeritus, which is a fake title he made up. He graduated from Penn State with degrees journalism and political science in 2014 and is currently seeking his J.D. at the Penn State Dickinson School of Law. A third generation Penn Stater from Williamsport, Pa., Kevin is also the president of the graduate student government. Email: [email protected]

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