Twitter in the courthouse
A judiciary rules committee is considering tighter restrictions on cellphone and online social media usage for people and journalists in the state's courthouses.
This is an instance where the technology we possess at our fingertips is suddenly years ahead of the policies and norms we have in place to manage this new information ecosystem.
There are a couple of instances where I understand the logic of banning use of such devices -- such as taking pictures inside a courthouse and using an audio recorder. Witnesses don't want their picture taken and, one could argue, there should only be one official audio recording of a court hearing, for authenticity's sake. Preventing jurors from Tweeting and Facebooking would probably also help them stay focused on their serious duty.
But these devices can also magnify our rights to free speech and contribute to the openness of the court process -- a process that a) is very costly in Maryland; b) affects a lot of people in Maryland; and c) has newsworthy implications for the public almost every day.
Last year, I got my first taste of how new technology was butting up against the bureaucracy of the court.
I went to Baltimore city Circuit Court to research a case. A clerk gave me a file and I identified a couple documents I wanted to copy. Copies cost 50 cents each (don't you think that's a bit high?)
Then I had what I thought was a bright idea. Why don't I use my iPhone to just take pictures of the document? Not wanting to tick off the clerk, I asked her if I could just take photos of the document. She said, without thinking, "Sure."
But seconds later, she changed her mind -- and told me she needed to ask her supervisor. Two minutes later she returned and told me I couldn't take pictures of the document because camera phones weren't allowed to be used in the court house.
This, I thought to myself, is a problem.
As a citizen, why can't I peruse a public document and take my own picture of it? Is it because government wants that 50 cents per copy?
There are many citizens in Baltimore who can't afford to pay 50 cents a copy for a public document -- I certainly don't like doing it.
It's a minor point, I know, but I think the bias should be toward making our processes and records as public as possible -- and only limit accessibility and impose costs on citizens as infrequently as possible and in specific situations where we're worried about the rights of participants in the judicial process being infringed upon.
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