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Tweets in contempt 

Reporters blocked from service during trial.

click to enlarge PIAZZA TO REPORTERS: No tweeting during Vance trial.
  • PIAZZA TO REPORTERS: No tweeting during Vance trial.

Last February, the use of Twitter in the courtroom was ruled legal by U.S. District Judge Thomas Marten of Wichita, Kan. “Twitter is on,” he told attorneys in the case. On Monday, the first day of Curtis Vance's trial, Circuit Court Judge Chris Piazza told a bevy of Arkansas reporters seated in the courtroom to turn off their cell phones and “Don't be Twittering or chittering or whatever it is you do.”

During the preliminary hearings, local reporters used the service to give live updates and report instantly on the finer points of the trial: expressions on Vance's face, comments made by the judge, the atmosphere of the courtroom itself.

According to court rules, the use of electronics inside the courtroom is and has been prohibited for some time. But reporters, notably from KARK, KATV, and Fox 16 took full advantage of their cell phones to release a constant stream of tweets, keeping the public, and those of us in the media who couldn't make the trial, informed. 

It's a decision that courtrooms will have to make all across the country as the messaging service becomes more popular and as the desire to get constant updates about high-profile cases grows.

Ed Trauschke is the news director at Fox 16 News in Little Rock. One of his reporters, David Goins, was, until the trial officially began on Monday, one of the most prolific offenders. His Twitter stream was one of, if not the¸ go-to place for news on the day of a hearing.

Trauschke and I spoke about the line between the defendant's right to a fair trial and the public's right to know.

“I think it's a bigger question,” he says. “I think our courts should be as open as possible. I think there should be cameras in the courtroom for this trial. I think the text messaging is just a small piece of that.”

In May, a judge in Boulder, Colo., dismissed the objections of both the prosecution and the defense and decided to allow cell phones and laptops in her courtroom. Lawyers argued that tweeting could tip sequestered witnesses to what was going on during the trial. “I think there are other manageable options and less restrictive options than shutting down the flow of information during the trial,” the judge said. It would be up to the jurors and witnesses to refrain from looking at Twitter in the same way they are instructed to avoid watching or reading traditional news reports.

“We're still going to cover it every day,” Trauschke says. “So whether they see the actual video and audio from the courtroom or they go home and see the report on what happened, or they read a Twitter message on the internet — all of those things the jurors should not be doing anyway. You just have to trust the jury is abiding by the law.”

But according to what I've heard from people close to the court, this is not a question that will come up for further discussion. The judge is set on his decision to keep cell phones, laptops and other electronics out of the courtroom. That's a win for attorneys in this and future cases who want to keep a lid on things, a loss for those who think the courts should be more open.

“Part of our Constitution is that our courts are not done in secret, that people can get as much information about this as they want,” Trauschke says. “This is a very high-profile case and a lot of people are very interested in the details. We've had e-mails from other states asking if we're going to stream coverage of the trial on the web, because people are that interested.”

Just to give you an idea, here are a couple of tweets from KATV's Amanda Manatt that came during one pretrial hearing.

Vance passing letter back to his mother...appears visibly frustrated / Vance tells reporters he doesn't think he will get a fair trial / Prosecutors arguing witnesses shouldn't be allowed to talk about Vance's mental capacity during trial ... should be last motion of the day.

Now, none of these messages paints a complete picture of the hearing, individually. But taken together, they do give an attentive audience information that might not make it into the night's newscast.

“In the old days,” Trauschke says, “people would go to the town square and watch the trial in person. Now, there's a lot more people and people get their information in different ways. But shouldn't the goal be that are courts are as open as possible?” 

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