Twitter Moves to Federal Court

The fights over whether blogging ought to be allowed during trials -- and whether it's good journalism -- aren't even over, and a new front has opened in the war over technology and its proper role in coverage of the justice system.

Last week, a federal district judge granted permission to a reporter from the Wichita Eagle to report on a trial using Twitter, the mini social network that allows users to shout out their whereabouts -- and anything else they can fit in a 140-character post -- quickly and easily.

The judge's OK -- he told defense attorneys, "Twitter is on" -- prompted news coverage from the AP and elsewhere, but it may strike some reporters and legal observers as less of an OMG moment, and closer to something like, "yeah, so?"

After all, one of the biggest Internet-related trials of the year (albeit in Sweden), so far, has been relentlessly covered by all kinds of folks on Twitter. (Examples: here, here and here.)  Even parties to the case have gotten in on the action; when the prosecution found itself forced to drop the most important charge against the Pirate Bay after only a day and a half, one of the defendants tweaked the opposition by tweeting: "EPIC WINNING LOL."

Still, in America, decades of effort has not been able to convince federal courts to allow cameras in the courtroom (except for a three-year pilot program in the 1990s, discontinued by the Judicial Conference of the United States without explanation), so it was news when bloggers joined the media frenzy covering the Scooter Libby trial.

No suprise then, that the Twitter news has found a following in the press (despite Twitter already making inroads in state court).  Some defense attorneys may worry that the live feeds will be prejudicial should a juror come across them, but that's likely to be a problem better managed by judges' admonishments that blanket bans on reporters' (or others') use of technology.  

But even supporters of lifting restrictions on the means by which trials are covered may be a tad uneasy as the consequences become more clear. After all, what's to stop a victim's widow from tweeting just ahead of the sentencing? An expert witness from fuming about rough handling by the opposing attorney on his way to the airport?

Those worries aren't reasons to block Twitter, but they are going to make it more important that judges' orders are followed. The only losers, I suppose, will be the poor jurors who eventually will have to foreswear not only television and newspapers, but smart phones, PDAs and any other device that lets users of Facebook, Twitter and the rest post little bit of wisdom every 34 seconds.


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