Judges, journalists clash over courtroom tweets

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CHICAGO (AP) - Getting news from a big trial once took days, moving at the speed of a carrier pigeon or an express pony. The telegraph and telephone cut that time dramatically, as did live television broadcasts.

Now comes Twitter with more changes, breaking up courtroom journalism into bite-size reports that take shape as fast as a reporter can tap 140 characters into a smartphone. But the micro-blogging site is increasingly putting reporters on a collision course with judges who fear it could threaten a defendant’s right to a fair trial.

The tension was highlighted recently by a Chicago court’s decision to ban anyone from tweeting or using other social media at the upcoming trial of a man accused of killing Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson’s family. Reporters and their advocates insist the practice is essential to providing a play-by-play for the public as justice unfolds.

“We’re troubled by this ban,” said Ed Yohnka, Chicago spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union. Tweeting and social media are “merely the 21st century version of what reporters have always done _ gather information and disseminate it.”

Judges, he said, should embrace Twitter as a way to shed light on the judicial process, which, for many Americans, remains shrouded in mysterious ritual.

The judge in the Illinois case fears that feverish tweeting on smartphones could distract jurors and witnesses when testimony begins April 23.

“Tweeting takes away from the dignity of a courtroom,” said Irv Miller, media liaison for Cook County Judge Charles Burns. “The judge doesn’t want the trial to turn into a circus.”

Burns is allowing reporters to bring cellphones and to send e-mails periodically, a notable concession in a state that has only recently announced it will begin experimenting with cameras in court and where cellphones are often barred from courtrooms altogether.

There’s also an overflow courtroom where reporters can tweet freely. But there will be no audio or video of proceedings in the room, just live transcripts scrolling across a screen.

The issue extends beyond journalists to jurors, whose tweets have raised issues of their own across the country.

Last year, the Arkansas Supreme Court threw out a death row inmate’s murder conviction after one juror tweeted during proceedings and another slept. Juror Randy Franco’s tweets ranged from the philosophical to the mundane. One read, “The coffee sucks here.” Less than an hour before the jury returned with a verdict, he tweeted, “It’s all over.”

There’s little gray area regarding jurors tweeting. The Arkansas trial judge had warned jurors, “Don’t Twitter anybody” about the case. Burns was similarly explicit during jury selection in Chicago.

But there’s no consensus among either state or federal judges about the propriety of in-court tweets, so individual judges are often left to craft their own rules.

For instance, the judge in the child sexual abuse case of former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky has allowed reporters to tweet from pretrial hearings but not to transmit verbatim accounts or to take photographs. Judge John Cleland hasn’t indicated whether he will change that policy for the June trial.

In some ways, Judge Burns has gone further than others.

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