Live-Blogging and Tweeting From Court: Experiences From the Field

In conjunction with our legal guide on live-blogging and tweeting from court, the CMLP staff conducted interviews with journalists and bloggers with experience live-blogging or tweeting from court.

The following accounts are summaries of the interviews and include individual experiences from journalists detailing: successful and unsucessful attempts, correspondence with judicial staff and courthouse officials, general observations, and other practical issues encountered.

Trish Mehaffey, The Cedar Rapids Gazette

Trish Mehaffey, the courts reporter for The Cedar Rapids Gazette, has had a number of successful experiences live-blogging proceedings in both federal and state court. Recently, District Judge Mark Bennett of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Iowa permitted Mehaffey to live-blog a high-profile insurance fraud case. According to Mehaffey, Judge Bennett generally allows laptops in his courtroom, but permission is required in order to live-blog or tweet. (Northern District Local Rule 83.4(b) permits electronic devices in the courtroom if authorized by order of the court.)

Mehaffey asked Judge Bennett for permission to live-blog the proceedings prior to the trial. She contacted Judge Bennett via phone and email and explained her interests and proposed methods of coverage. She emphasized that the changes in the news business and explained that satisfying the demand for digital coverage in real-time is important to The Gazette’s business interests. Judge Bennett took several days to consider the request and eventually permitted it. Judge Bennett’s chief concern was physical distractions to the jury or attorneys from keyboard noise. In his correspondence, the judge noted that if noise became a problem during the trial, he would simply ask Mehaffey to stop typing or to move to a different area in the spectator gallery.

Mehaffey also was allowed to live-blog additional hearings in the same case before Chief Magistrate Judge Paul Zoss. In her email correspondence with Judge Zoss, Mehaffey reiterated that she would only be providing coverage in text and would not capture any audio or video of the proceedings. Judge Zoss granted the request under the same conditions as Judge Bennett.

In Mehaffey's experience, other judges in the Northern District of Iowa are not as amenable to live-blogging and tweeting. For instance, Mehaffy tells us that Chief District Judge Linda Reade does not allow laptops in the courtroom. When Mehaffey is covering proceedings before Chief Judge Reade, she leaves the courthouse and writes blog posts from her car.

You can find more information on Trish Mehaffey and her coverage of legal proceedings on The Gazette's website.

Ben Sheffner, Copyrights & Campaigns

Former journalist Ben Sheffner is a copyright, First Amendment, and entertainment law attorney. In addition to practicing law, Sheffner maintains the Copyrights & Campaigns blog and writes for Billboard; his work has also been featured on Ars Technica and Slate. In 2009, Sheffner covered two high-profile copyright infringement trials, Capitol Records, et al. v. Jammie Thomas-Rasset and Sony BMG Music Entertainment, et al. v. Joel Tenenbaum. He had different experiences covering each through Twitter and his blog.

The Thomas-Rasset trial was held in the United States District Court for the District of Minnesota. The local rules in this district permit laptops and cell phones in the courthouse, but use of the devices is prohibited within the courtrooms. Sheffner tells us that Chief District Judge Michael Davis, who presided over the trial, clearly indicated the use of electronic devices within the courtroom was prohibited. Sheffner said a notice was posted directly outside the courtroom reiterating the prohibition. According to Sheffner, at one point during the trial, court room security officers caught an attorney, who was also observing the proceedings, using his BlackBerry in the courtroom. The security officers informed Judge Davis, who called the attorney to the well and publicly reprimanded him. Based on the rules and clear notice, Sheffner did not ask for permission to tweet or blog from the courtroom during the trial. Instead, Sheffner tweeted via BlackBerry from the hallway outside the courtroom and made use of a media room on another floor that had Internet access and desks for use by journalists.

In the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts, Sheffner had a much different experience during the Tenenbaum trial. The District of Massachusetts' policy regarding electronic devices prohibits electronic devices in the courthouse except for attorneys and credentialed journalists. Sheffner noted that although he already qualified under the exception as a member of the California bar, he also acquired a Media Identification Card from the court's Administrative Office several weeks prior to the trial. The requirements for the Media Identification card included a short application form and two letters of reference from media organizations for which he had freelanced. Based on his previous work for Slate and Ars Technica, he did not have any difficulty obtaining press credentials. Sheffner cautioned, however, that it was not clear whether the court officials would grant credentials to individual bloggers, amateur journalists, or others who are not affiliated with established media organizations. Also, Sheffner noted that presiding District Judge Nancy Gertner announced early in the trial that the use of laptops and cellular devices in the courtroom was permissible and he did not need to ask for further permission.

Although the use of electronic devices was authorized during the Tenenbaum trial, and he was able to take notes on his laptop, Sheffner encountered a number of non-legal, practical problems when attempting to tweet the Tenenbaum trial. Sheffner explained that the courthouse had overall weak cellular reception and he was unable to actually send updates from his BlackBerry within the courtroom; nor was there wireless Internet service available in the courthouse. On the final day of the trial, Sheffner discovered that there was a wired ethernet jack available in the area where the trial attorneys were sitting. Sheffner was able to tweet by laptop after extending a cable into the jack from the spectators' gallery and paying for Internet access, but he noted it was very inconvenient and was not sure whether he would have had access to the ethernet jack during the substantive portions of the trial, when it was needed by the attorneys.

Sheffner's account of the Thomas-Rasset trial can be found on Copyrights & Campaigns, and his coverage of the Tenenbaum trial appears on Ars Technica.

Henry Lee, San Francisco Chronicle

Henry Lee, a staff writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, tells us the Superior Court of California, Alameda County, has a policy that prohibits laptops and cellular devices, such as BlackBerries, in the courtrooms. In the past, Lee had covered trials with paper notes by hand in the courtroom and took breaks or waited for the court to recess until typing his notes on a computer.

While covering the Hans Reiser murder trial, Lee and a group of reporters approached Judge Larry Goodman and requested permission to use laptops and smart phones while covering the trial. According to Lee, Judge Goodman is very “media friendly” and permitted the request without any additional restrictions even though the request was not made before the trial began. Judge Goodman also allowed the sentencing to be filmed by a camera crew. The court bailiffs were notified of the accommodation due to its unusual character.

Lee also noted that, in his experience, the courts have not made any distinctions between members of the public or members of the press when it comes to the use of electronic devices during proceedings.

Lee’s account of the trial can be found on the San Francisco Chronicle’s website.

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