Last week, media outlets flocked to a Chicago courthouse and fans tuned in to follow the criminal trial of the man accused of killing the mother, brother and nephew of Oscar-winner and singing sensation, Jennifer Hudson. Journalists and news junkies alike expressed disappointment over the decision of presiding Judge Charles Burns to ban the use of Twitter from inside the courtroom. While journalists are being allowed to bring in cell phones and send out periodic e-mails from the courtroom, the Judge has drawn the line at tweeting, citing that tapping out tweets may be distracting to jurors and witnesses. Moreover, opponents of courtroom tweeting have often argued that tweeting and real-time blogging of trials through social media sites can affect the integrity of the judicial process, particularly if witnesses and jurors are able to view the tweets and postings during the course of the trial.
Twitter supporters logically counter that witnesses and jurors can be instructed to refrain from accessing Twitter feeds just as they are restricted from otherwise following news about an ongoing trial. They further argue that Twitter is no more distracting than other typing or even good ol’ fashioned note-taking. It seems that the line between typing tweets and typing e-mails is an arbitrary one to draw. Even the ACLU has chimed in to express concern about restrictions on the use of the new tools of the day for disseminating the news.
At the heart of the issue may be the much older debate about whether and how trials should be made viewable to the larger public. It used to be the case that courtroom sketch artists were the only providers of nearly real-time visual snapshots from the inner workings of courtroom proceedings. While federal courts, under the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, still generally prohibit the taking of photographs and the broadcasting of judicial proceedings, state courts (where the majority of criminal trials are held) are increasingly lifting age-old bans on TV cameras in the courtrooms. Many judges view this as a way to make judicial proceedings – particularly in high profile cases that will be closely scrutinized -- more accessible and transparent.
Does Twitter -- with its direct and immediate dissemination of sound bytes of up to 140-characters -- make judicial proceedings more accessible or transparent to the public? Trials can be complex affairs. If journalists use the tool of tweets to break down the complex nuances into digestible bits for the public, then yes. But unfortunately, tweets often disseminate “breaking news” about celebrities breaking into tears in the courtroom. These broadcasts only give the public sensationalized images without the greater context or understanding of the larger judicial process. Are these little micro-broadcasts making the judicial system more accessible and transparent? Or has the constant dissemination of thousands of skewed micro-bytes made it more important than ever to allow the public the full view of judicial proceedings via live TV broadcasting? The jury is still out.