Editorial: Time for clarity on electronic devices in court

Did Twitter updates during the proceedings against Russell Williams affect courtroom equipment?

It’s a good question given a recent ruling that banned the use of devices that can transmit wireless signals.

In the high-profile trial of three people accused of murdering their relatives, Superior Court Justice Robert Maranger effectively said no to live Twitter updates during the proceedings.

“Electronic devices that have the capability to transmit or receive wireless signals may not be set to ‘silent’ or ‘airport mode’ settings, but must be completely powered off,” Maranger wrote in rules laid out for the trial of Mohammad Shafia, Tooba Mohammad Yahya, and their son Hamed in Kingston, Ont.

The trio is facing allegations of first-degree murder over the killing of four relatives in an attempt to restore the family’s honour.

Judges have the authority to make exceptions to rules against electronic devices in court should they see fit. That’s why reporters were able to tweet during the court proceedings against Williams last year.

That case was admittedly one of the most sensational murder cases Canadians have seen in a long time, but should that be the criteria governing the use of Twitter?

It’s obvious that the justice system is uncomfortable with the idea of things like cameras and Twitter updates in courtrooms.

That’s why there are committees to look into the issues but rarely clear guidelines on exactly what should happen. In the meantime, lawyers like Michael Edelson, who defended Williams, has called for clear rules on what people can and can’t do.

“I would like to see our rules of practice amended . . . in order to address these issues and give judges and lawyers clear guidance,” he said in a Canadian Lawyer interview published earlier this year.

Edelson is concerned about the impact live Twitter updates of courtroom testimony can have on witnesses who are about to testify.

“Typically, in a criminal case, we really value the order excluding witnesses so that one witness can’t tailor their evidence to the next witness,” he said, noting live tweets could render that practice meaningless.

That concern is different from worries about devices interfering with courtroom equipment. It’s hard to see how smartphones could actually do that, but either way, it’s time for more clarity on what the impacts are and what reporters can do.

Simply making up the rules according to a judge’s whim isn’t a good way to go about the issue. Somehow, the courts need to find a way to accommodate new technology while ensuring fairness for all sides.
— Glenn Kauth
For more, see "Court says no to live tweets at trial."

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