Court says no to live tweets at trial

Journalists hoping to use social media web sites and BlackBerrys inside a Kingston, Ont., courtroom won’t be able to do so after questions surfaced about the devices’ impact on court proceedings and equipment.

“I think there is often a lot of misgivings and misunderstandings about new communication technology when it comes along, especially in this case with it being a jury trial,” says Toronto media lawyer Brian Rogers.

He made the comments in the wake of rules laid out in an Oct. 19 decision by Superior Court Justice Robert Maranger in a high-profile murder case in Kingston.

“But my view in general is that the courts have to learn how to embrace new technology.”
In the meantime, the judgment left reporters with limited alternatives.

In the decision, Maranger ruled CBC Radio-Canada and other journalists could have access to an affidavit and a submission by counsel.

The ruling also said reporters could use electronic devices in the courtroom for the purposes of taking notes, but there was a caveat.

“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.

He went on to note that “for clarity, nothing in this order authorizes the dissemination of reports of the within proceedings from inside the courtroom.”

The decision means BlackBerrys and live social media updates are now off the table for journalists covering the sensational case.

“I think the use of social media, and particularly Twitter feeds, are just a variation on the theme of people being worried about what the impacts could be,” says Rogers.

“I think those impacts can be beneficial but that you have to minimize any risks that come with it, not just simply block its use.”

The matter surfaced earlier this month after CBC Radio-Canada filed a motion with the Superior Court requesting access to an affidavit and submission of counsel in the murder trial of Mohammad Shafia, Tooba Mohammad Yahya, and their son Hamed.

The trio from Montreal is facing accusations of first-degree murder. Police allege they killed four relatives in an attempt to restore the family’s honour.

The accused have all pleaded not guilty.
The issue of the impact of technology on Ontario courts isn’t new, however.

The Superior Court’s technology committee is currently looking into matters such as digital audio recording in courtrooms, according to officials.

The committee “was struck by the chief justice to provide input and advice on technology initiatives launched by the Ministry of the Attorney General, such as digital audio recording, that have an impact on the operations of the court,” says Mohan Sharma, executive legal officer to the chief justice of the Superior Court.

“It also serves as a forum through which Superior Court judges can raise concerns about technology, which can then be communicated to the Ministry of the Attorney General for remedial action.”

However, the specific actions the ministry plans to take on the issue of digital audio recording and its impact on court proceedings and equipment aren’t clear at this time.

“I think one of the larger questions here is, do you prohibit their use until the committee decides or do you see it as an opportunity to learn?” says Rogers, who notes that Britain has recently allowed video and Wi-Fi in its Supreme Court.

According to s. 136 of the Ontario Courts of Justice Act, journalists can’t use electronic devices to record or videotape information inside the court. They can take handwritten notes.

The act also provides for exceptions to those rules if a judge sees fit in certain circumstances.
The act doesn’t mention social media web sites, however.

In most instances, it falls on the individual judge to decide whether or not journalists can use BlackBerrys and social media to provide live updates from the court.

Such issues have surfaced a few times over the last several years.

In 2009, Ottawa Citizen journalist Glen McGregor tweeted live from the trial of former Ottawa mayor Larry O’Brien. McGregor provided daily play-by-play coverage as allegations of influence peddling unfolded before the courts. The court eventually found O’Brien not guilty.

“In the end, each judge must decide what is best for their particular case and they have the jurisdiction to make those decisions,” says Rogers. “It varies depending on the sensitivity of the case as well.”

For more, see "Time for clarity on electronic devices in court."

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