A Florida appellate court has ruled that a reporter may use a laptop to blog live from the courtroom during a high profile criminal trial, overturning a trial court’s order. In a ruling issued on an emergency basis the court quashed the order of the trial court which had prohibited the reporter from using a laptop to “communicate outside the courtroom,” and sent the matter back to the trial court “with directions to allow [the reporter] the use of a laptop computer in the courtroom unless the court finds a specific factual basis to conclude that such use cannot be accomplished without undue distraction or disruption.” Morris Publishing Co., LLC v. State of Florida, Tajuan Dubose.

The case arose in the context of a high profile murder trial in which three brothers were accused of a drive by shooting of an eight-year-old girl, DreShawna Davis, in Jacksonville, Florida, in 2006. Three-and-one-half years later the trial began on January 11, 2010. As part of its coverage of the trial, The Florida Times-Union operated a blog reporting in real time from the courtroom along with showing live streaming video of the trial provided by a pool camera. The blog is interactive so that in real time people who are online can ask questions about the proceedings, and the reporter can give answers and insight about what is happening and why. The blog became the most popular destination on the paper’s website, jacksonville.com, and traffic to the website spiked dramatically.

Three days into the trial the judge threw The Florida Times-Union reporter out of the courtroom. At a hastily called hearing, the judge entered an order stating that the reporter could not use a laptop in the courtroom in order to “communicate outside the courtroom,” the very purpose of the blog. The following morning the judge entered a supplemental order reciting that the rule on use of technology in Florida courtrooms did not mention laptops, and therefore they would not be allowed.

The Florida Times-Union filed an emergency petition for review with the First District Court of Appeal. On January 20, 2010, the appellate court made its ruling on an emergency basis “[g]iven the exigencies of time” since the trial was ongoing. The appellate court held:

The order on review found that Florida Rule of Judicial Administration 2.450 included within its purview the prohibition of a laptop computer. The rule does not apply to the use of laptop computers, regardless of whether the device is used to transmit information outside the courtroom. The trial court retains authority, however, to prohibit the use of any device which as a factual matter, the court finds causes a distraction to the jury or otherwise causes a disruption of proceedings. Here, the trial court stated that the use of the device caused a distraction, but the court later issued an order which relied on an incorrect interpretation of [the rule].

Accordingly, the petition is granted in part, the order denying motion to allow access of reporter to trial with laptop and the addendum thereto are quashed, and the matter is remanded with directions to allow petitioner’s reporter the use of a laptop computer in the courtroom unless the court finds a specific factual basis to conclude that such use cannot be accommodated without undue distraction or disruption.

By holding that a reporter with a laptop computer is allowed to report live via blog from the courtroom in an ongoing trial, the appellate court has recognized that the use of blogs is but another way technology is providing the long cherished right of access for the public, a type of access that broadens who can observe public proceedings, and provides commentary and education for the public in general.

It is believed that this is the first appellate ruling of its kind addressing the use of laptops to blog live from the courtroom in an ongoing trial.