In June 2009 a tragic car accident occurred in Jacksonville, Florida, when an SUV full of teenagers, driven by a 16-year-old with only a learner’s permit, suffered a tire blow-out and rolled over. Four of the teenage passengers were killed in the accident. The state charged the driver with eight counts of driving without a driver’s license causing death or serious bodily injury.
Multiple media outlets published countless stories about the accident, its immediate aftermath, and the criminal prosecution of the juvenile driver. The community interest in the story was overwhelming, with support for both the accident victims and the juvenile driver. Over 200 people attended the memorial service for the teenagers who were killed in the accident, the driver’s high school principal publicly spoke on his behalf, and over 50 people attended the driver’s arraignment in order to support him. Included among the driver’s supporters were the parents of some of the deceased teenagers.
Among the media outlets covering the story was The Florida Times-Union, Jacksonville’s daily newspaper. Reflecting the high community interest, each story that it ran generated extensive comments on the newspaper’s website. Prior to the trial, the newspaper obtained an exclusive interview with the driver, in which he spoke extensively about the facts of the accident. The Times-Union also obtained copies of the expert witness reports for both the state and defense, which reviewed and discussed all of the evidence that would be presented at the trial.
Every pre-trial proceeding had been open to the public. Nonetheless, upon motion by the parties, the court entered an order excluding “disinterested parties” from the courtroom during the trial itself, citing a Florida procedural statute for juvenile criminal proceedings. The order set out a definition for “disinterested parties”:
Disinterested parties shall be defined as but not necessarily limited to anyone with a direct relation to the criminal prosecution of the case and shall include the following: the media, the general public and all attorneys, experts and any other parties related to the civil lawsuits that have been or will be filed in reference to the incident in this case.
In response, the newspaper intervened and asked the court to reopen the trial proceedings. The newspaper pointed out that because the facts of the case had been reported on extensively, there was no “confidential” information about the juvenile or the trial to protect. Citing the Florida Constitution, federal constitutional precedent, and provisions in the same Florida juvenile procedural statute calling for opening hearings and access for family and victims, the newspaper emphasized that trial courts are obligated to take every reasonable measure to accommodate public attendance at criminal trials. The court’s discretion to close a courtroom, “when the public interest and the welfare of the child are best served by so doing,” must meet constitutional standards.
The court agreed with the newspaper and reversed itself, permitting journalists to attend the trial. On its own initiative, the court also ruled that the reporter could blog from the courtroom – an implicit acknowledgement of an appellate decision obtained by the same newspaper a few months earlier which allowed a newspaper reporter to blog from a criminal trial courtroom unless the court could make specific findings that blogging would interfere with the trial. The newspaper thus was able to report on the entire trial, including a live blog about the proceedings.