At this writing, state court systems in 24 states have Twitter accounts, 11 are on YouTube, and eight are on Facebook, according to the National Center for State Courts. But while courts may be jumping on the social media bandwagon to get information out to the public, they’re not uniformly keen on allowing the use of social media inside courtrooms.
Reporters who want to live-tweet a trial may find roadblocks in many courts, which often view smart phones and other electronic devices as annoyances.
Some courthouses ban cell phones outright, requiring individuals to leave their phones at home or check them when they go through security. Many more courthouses allow the ubiquitous devices, but require them to be turned off or in silent mode in the courtroom.
Consistent policies are hard to come by – the rules in state and federal courts vary by jurisdiction. In California, for example, the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals adopted a policy in 2010 that allows the use of electronic devices in courtrooms “to take notes, transmit and receive data communications, and access the Internet. This includes media members who are transmitting written accounts of the proceeding to a wider audience using various means.”
The federal trial courts in California, however, are not so progressive. All require devices to be turned off in the courtroom, unless otherwise allowed by the judge.
At the state level, policies on electronic devices vary from county to county in California, and many courts have no formal policy at all beyond the statewide court rule regarding cameras in court, which requires advance permission.
A few states have seen the wisdom of setting policies on electronic devices that cover all courts in the state. The Arizona Supreme Court adopted new rules for all of that state’s courts, which took effect Jan. 1 and allow the use of portable electronic devices in courtrooms “to retrieve or to store information, to access the Internet, and to send and receive text messages or information.” Hawaii did the same, also effective Jan. 1. Both the Arizona and Hawaii rules apply to everybody (except jurors), not just news media.
Iowa is considering proposed rules allowing live tweeting of court proceedings by the media with advance permission from the judge. Kansas adopted similar rules in 2012. Utah adopted rules last year providing that electronic devices are allowed unless explicitly banned by a judge. Utah’s rules refer to media, but define “news reporters” broadly to include anybody who is gathering information for dissemination to the public.
Some courts have gone in the opposite direction. The Circuit Court of Cook County, Illinois, banned electronic devices in all criminal court buildings in April 2013, with limited exceptions.
So, if you’re heading into court and want to provide live coverage via social media, what should you do?
1. Determine the assigned court and judge.
2. Check the court’s website for any local rules on electronic devices in the courtroom. Courts typically post their local rules, the state or federal rules, and any “chambers rules” adopted by individual judges. Also, look for any general or standing orders about use of electronic devices.
3. If the court’s own website isn’t helpful, do a general online search for any court rules about cell phones in courtrooms in your jurisdiction.
4. If you can’t find any rules or you’re not sure how the rules apply, contact the court’s public information officer.
5. If the court allows electronic devices only with advance permission, make sure you follow the rules for submitting a request. If you just want to report in real-time and are not interested in filming or recording the proceedings, make that clear.
Jodi Cleesattle is a deputy attorney general with the California Department of Justice, where she works in the Civil Division representing state agencies in employment-related lawsuits. She represented media outlets when she was in private practice and is a former journalist. She has been a member of SPJ for more than 25 years. On Twitter: @jcleesattle or firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed in this article are solely the author’s.