Massachusetts Judge Bans Tweeting, but Permits Blogging in his Courtroom

Prominent lawyer and legal blogger Robert Ambrogi reports on an interesting recent decision by Massachusetts judge Peter Lauriat, who has decided to ban tweeting but permit blogging by members of the audience in his courtroom [HT: Josh Blackman]:

Does it make sense for a judge to allow blogging but ban tweeting from the courtroom? That was the question in a recent Massachusetts murder trial, and the judge’s explanation of why he did it has failed to satisfy media observers.

The recent first-degree murder trial of Nathaniel Fujita attracted national media to Superior Court Judge Peter Lauriat’s courtroom. Fujita, 20, was convicted March 7 of brutally murdering his former high school girlfriend.

Given the media interest in the case, Judge Lauriat no doubt faced a difficult challenge in balancing the right of the media to be present in the courtroom against the need to maintain order and decorum. Even so, his decision about how to handle courtroom coverage left some observers scratching their heads….

The ban on tweeting drew the unavoidable question: What’s the difference? The judge allowed blogging from the courtroom, television cameras in the courtroom, and what he described as the “pencil press” in the courtroom. Why draw the line at Twitter?….

Judge Lauriat was clearly skeptical of Twitter. When told that journalists regularly use Twitter to report from courtrooms, he asked, “And what is it that [they] disseminate in what I understand to be a hundred and forty character maximum amount with Twitter?”

In the end, his explanation for banning Twitter focused primarily on SJC Rule 1:19, a Massachusetts court rule adopted last year to govern the use of technology in courtrooms…..

The rule requires reporters to register with the SJC’s Public Information Office in order to use technology such as computers or cameras.

I certainly agree with Judge Lauriat that blogging is a much better way to provide news coverage and commentary on legal issues than tweeting. That’s why I’m a blogger who (so far at least) doesn’t have a Twitter account. That said, as Ambrogi points out, Judge Lauriat’s legal rationale for drawing a distinction between the two seems dubious. It also raises the issue of whether reporters in his courtroom are allowed to post status updates on other social media, such as Facebook. Unlike Twitter posts, Facebook status updates are not limited to 140 characters. So perhaps they are closer to blogging than to tweeting under Judge Lauriat’s interpretation of SJC Rule 1:19.

UPDATE: Here is a more detailed account, which suggests that Judge Lauriat barred the use of all electronic social media, not just Twitter. It also makes more clear than Ambrogi’s analysis that Lauriat’s reason for distinguishing between Twitter and blogging is that the latter provides more serious and in-depth coverage of events than the former. He thus concluded that Twitter coverage was not really “necessary” to providing news coverage of trials. He may be right about that. But I’m not convinced that it is either constitutional or good policy for judges to impose restrictions on reporters’ coverage of their trials based on what the judges to believe good journalistic practices. As I see it, unless the use of Twitter was somehow disrupting the trial or causing the release of confidential information, it should be permitted. And it is difficult to see why courtroom tweeting would be any more disruptive and harmful in these respects than courtroom blogging.

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