An Illinois juvenile court judge refused to allow blogger Elaine Hopkins from Peoriastory.com to observe and cover a July 25 juvenile court hearing in Peoria, IL. In excluding Hopkins from the courtroom, Judge Albert Purham, Jr. ruled that bloggers are not journalists under Illinois law. Hopkins, who covered her ouster on her website, reported:
Operating a "so-called blog" doesn't make the person a journalist, Purham said. Before the ruling he consulted the lawyers in the courtroom. A lawyer for the parent in this child welfare case had no objection, and her client, Lorraine Singleton who lost her children in 2003 and is trying to get them back, also had no objection. But assistant state's attorney Susan Lucas objected, as did an unidentified female lawyer apparently representing the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. An explanation that Peoriastory.com has operated since February 2007, has business cards, and is run by Hopkins, a former newspaper reporter known to court personnel, did not sway the judge.
Unlike adult criminal proceedings, which are presumed to be open to the public, juvenile proceedings have traditionally been closed. See In re Gault, 387 U.S. 1, 25 (1967). Under Illinois' Juvenile Court Act, the general public, except for the "news media," are excluded from juvenile proceedings. The provision addressing access, 705 ILCS 405/1-5, states:
The general public except for the news media and the crime victim, as defined in Section 3 of the Rights of Crime Victims and Witnesses Act, shall be excluded from any hearing and, except for the persons specified in this Section only persons, including representatives of agencies and associations, who in the opinion of the court have a direct interest in the case or in the work of the court shall be admitted to the hearing. However, the court may, for the minor's safety and protection and for good cause shown, prohibit any person or agency present in court from further disclosing the minor's identity.
The Illinois Act does not define "news media" for purposes of this provision and I couldn't find any reported cases where this issue has come up. It appears that the judge, relying on his own intuition, simply determined that Hopkins and Peoriastory.com did not meet the definition of "news media."
This is somewhat surprising in that Hopkins is a former reporter for the Peoria Journal Star and, according to her site, has won awards for investigative reporting. In the About Me section of her site, Hopkins states that
PeoriaStory is a project of Downstate Story, Inc., an Illinois not-for-profit corporation since 1992. PeoriaStory uses mainstream journalism standards to report news and provide analysis and advocacy journalism with fairness, accuracy and comprehensiveness.
I was interviewed by the local ABC affiliate in Peoria about this story, and stated that I believed the judge had taken a very narrow-minded view of what journalism is. The focus should be on the type of work someone does, not on whether they have a traditional media organization listed on their business card. From all appearances, Hopkins and Peoriastory.com fit anyone's definition of journalist and "news media," respectively, just not Illinois' definition.
This is an issue that is not going away. As non-traditional journalists go out and cover these kinds of stories, judges in Illinois and elsewhere will be forced to rethink established definitions of news media. The best approach is to have traditional media organizations and citizen journalists sit down with judges and court personnel to discuss what is best for the public, the juvenile court system, and the juveniles themselves.
It is in the public's best interest to have more voices covering news stories, especially stories involving the juvenile justice system, which surely needs more public attention.