An advisory opinion from the Indiana Commission on Judicial Qualifications could clear the way for journalists and citizens alike to ‘live tweet’ court proceedings as they happen. The commission’s opinion was prompted by the Vanderburgh County triple murder case of Christopher Compton who was convicted but found mentally ill in 2015. In that case, the judge permitted members of the press to live tweet court proceedings.
The following year, the Indiana Court of Appeals upheld Compton’s conviction but sought insight from the judiciary on clearer guidance when it comes to social media use in the courtroom.
At issue for the Judicial Qualifications Commission was whether live tweeting or micro-blogging violated rule 2.17 of the Code of Judicial Conduct, which forbids broadcasting of court proceedings. The JQC opined that tweeting did not constitute broadcasting because it is ‘qualitatively different’ than transmitting a person’s actual voice and image. However, the JQC did note that judges will still have the discretion to regulate the use of Twitter inside the courtroom so long as such regulations are considered reasonable.
“The information is going to get out either way, in my opinion,” said Vanderburgh County Prosecutor Nick Hermann. “Allowing someone to quietly tweet in a courtroom so long as it is not distracting and drawing attention is a way to make sure that the reporting is accurate.”
The commission noted that Twitter, in many respects, is similar to a reporter taking notes during a trial and then relaying those observations during a break in the proceedings.
Hermann noted numerous instances in which a ban on tweeting in the courtroom has actually caused minor disruptions in the courtroom. In many cases, Hermann said, reporters and journalists have had to leave the courtroom to relay important information, diverting the attention of those inside the room.
Longtime defense attorney Chris Lenn said on Tuesday that he believes the JQC issued a good advisory opinion that balances two competing interests.
“As a defense attorney, any time you have to weigh the public’s right to information and your client’s right to constitutional protection, I’m going to side with my client every time,” Lenn said. “As a general rule, I think this is a good advisory opinion. It does provide some direction.”
However, Lenn does have his concerns. If journalists are allowed to live tweet information from inside the courtroom, separated witnesses that have yet to testify could have the ability to become privy to prior testimony. Lenn also worried that if journalists or citizens in the gallery are allowed to live tweet, they could be tempted to illegally record the proceedings.
“It’s going to be really hard to police that,” Lenn said.
Hermann, however, said if a judge discovers that activity occurring, swift action would prevent others from doing the same.
“The effective means of policing could be when that’s discovered, the judge finds them in contempt and throws them in jail,” Hermann said. “I think you do that once or twice and it’s not going to happen again.”
The ban on broadcasting in the courtroom dates back to before WWII. In 1937, the American Bar Association responded to the tremendous amount of media coverage and ‘circus atmosphere’ of the trial of Bruno Hauptmann, who was later convicted of murdering aviator Charles Lindbergh’s baby. In the decades since, many states have softened the rules prohibiting the broadcasting of court proceedings. According to Eyewitness News’ analysis, more than 30 states permit cameras in the courtroom in some capacity.
Indiana, however, does not, except for
Ultimately, the judge will have a fair amount of discretion whether to allow tweeting from inside the courtroom. Hermann believes the advisory opinion strikes a good balance.
“We’re trying to allow the public in the courtroom. We’re trying to allow them to get information on what’s happening on a day to day basis,” Hermann said. “We don’t want, for example, people taking pictures of jurors or pictures of witnesses with their smartphones. We don’t normally encourage the use of electronics in the courtroom but I do think that reporters that are tweeting have a legitimate purpose.”