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August 15 2012

14:00

Massachusetts Courts Allow Citizen Journalists to Register to Live-Blog

The information office of the highest court in Massachusetts just launched a new online registration process for citizens and news organizations wishing to use cameras and other electronic equipment to cover court hearings throughout the state.

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The process is a lead-in for amended courtroom media rules that become effective next month. Key changes to Rule 1:19, the state's cameras-in-the-courtroom statute, include:

  • A redefining of the media to include citizen journalists "who are regularly engaged in the reporting and publishing of news or information about matters of public interest," and
  • Allowance, with permission of the judge, to use laptop computers, tablets, smartphones and other devices to cover the proceedings, including live-blogging.

Once a news media organization or individual has registered, the state will return a signed acknowledgment form which must be presented alongside photo ID to courthouse officials if electronic devices would be brought into a courthouse or courtroom.

Additionally, as is the current policy, the news media must request permission beforehand from the presiding judge to use a pool camera or electronic device in the courtroom during those proceedings.

The SJC's amended Rule 1:19 is effective on September 17, 2012.

Joe Spurr is a multimedia journalist and a web developer. Before coming to WBUR, he was the staff web developer for San Diego's NPR station, which he helped completely overhaul in 2009. He pioneered the station's adoption of Twitter and Google "My Maps" which culminated during the 2007 California wildfires, built layered, interactive maps to help track the drug-related murder surge in Tijuana, and produced in a roving, three-person skeleton crew from the DNC and RNC in 2008. Joe is a Boston native, a graduate of Northeastern University, and a former freelance reporter at The Boston Globe.

This post originally appeared on the OpenCourt blog.

August 14 2012

22:14

OpenCourt wins another legal challenge to online streaming in the courtroom

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has again ruled in favor of allowing OpenCourt to continue broadcasting online.

Since May 2011, OpenCourt — a judicial transparency project (and Knight News Challenge winner) that provides videostreams of court cases — has been broadcasting from Quincy District Court, offering online viewers a look at things like arraignments, traffic infractions, and drug cases. Last month, a local district attorney sued the court hosting OpenCourt to halt plans to begin streaming jury trials from the Quincy courthouse. In today’s ruling, the judge in that lawsuit said OpenCourt should be allowed to go forward and must be subject to the same rules that govern other news media, writing: “There is no reason to single OpenCourt out and impose on it a variety of restrictions that do not apply to other media organizations.”

This is not the first time the project faced a legal threat aimed at stopping the streaming. In March, the Supreme Judicial Court reinforced OpenCourt’s right to broadcast after the state sued to stop the project from recording and archiving court cases.

“There is a presumption that Massachusetts courts are open to media access and this ruling today clarified OpenCourt’s contention all along it should not be singled out as anything different from any other broadcast media,” said John Davidow, executive producer of OpenCourt and executive editor of new media at WBUR, the Boston public radio station where OpenCourt is a project. Davidow said he’s pleased with the ruling because it not only strengthens OpenCourt’s position but also furthers the project’s goals of transparency. “This isn’t about OpenCourt,” Davidow said. “This is really about the public’s access to what goes on in their courtrooms.”

In July, OpenCourt was scheduled to begin broadcasting jury trials in Quincy. Norfolk County DA Michael Morrissey sued the Quincy District Court justices, arguing that OpenCourt needed concrete guidelines from a special judiciary committee for broadcasting within the court that would protect victims, witnesses, and minors.

Davidow said Tuesday’s ruling would allow OpenCourt to move forward with plans to stream those cases from courtroom A at Quincy District Court. Davidow said the cameras and other preparations were set for recording in the jury room prior to the lawsuit — meaning OpenCourt will be ready to livestream once jury cases are scheduled. Davidow said streaming jury trials is important because those are the cases most of the public is familiar with. “The public, outside perspective of the court is trials,” Davidow said. “It’s the essence of what the public thinks takes place in courthouses across the commonwealth.”

In denying Morissey’s request, Justice Margot Botsford said the project can operate under preliminary guidelines that were put in place as a result of the decision in the earlier OpenCourt case. In that case, Commonwealth v. Barnes, the court said a special committee must create guidelines for OpenCourt to broadcast and archive court cases. In June, a preliminary set of guidelines for OpenCourt was released by the Quincy District Court. The final rules from the judiciary media committee are expected to be drafted by October.

In a statement, Morrissey said his office may seek to stop OpenCourt from recording on a case-by-case basis in order to protect victims and witnesses. From the statement:

The judiciary media committee is currently meeting and presumably working on the guidelines that this injunction asked the court to wait for before adding a second session to the live streaming. We hope that committee will expedite that process, and that the rules will provide appropriate protections so that violations of victim privacy, as occurred so many times in the Barnes case, do not occur.

January 18 2012

15:20

OpenCourt Coaxes Out More Data with Cooperative Coverage Day

A version of this post first appeared on the OpenCourt blog.

A man charged with selling drugs inside the courthouse. A woman said to have shoplifted $5 worth of barbeque chicken wings. A man charged with multiple counts of raping a child with force. A longtime Drug Court participant booted from the program for taking a non-narcotic pill (still against the rules). Everyone brought back to court owing fees or victim restitution in previously dismissed cases. A man on psychotropic medication charged with shoplifting a Stop and Shop cart full of meat and pulling a knife when confronted in the parking lot. A naked hiker in the Blue Hills whose defense to lewd behavior is being raised as a naturist. OUIs. Restraining order hearings. A wife sectioning her husband for alcoholism.

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OpenCourt has been streaming public court hearings from the First Session courtroom in the Quincy District Court in Massachusetts since May of 2011. We've received feedback about how our viewers use and value the footage, and we realize it would be useful to show more of the court's daily business -- not just the cross-section that comes through the First Session.

While holding to our goal to carve a plausible model for other courthouses, we've often asked ourselves how we and other journalists around the country could do a better job shedding light on a bigger portion of the iceberg's tip, and not necessarily using as much expensive technology.

In other words, just how much business does all of Quincy District Court do in a single day? How can we more fully capture the breadth of cases heard, day in and day out?

Cooperative Coverage

To help answer these questions, last month we hosted a cooperative coverage event at the court, an open invitation to citizen and traditional journalists alike to help us gather notes about everything that transpires in the building's six public courtrooms.

Our combined notes, which you can read here on our blog -- gathered between myself, our producer Val Wang, two Patriot Ledger reporters, two Harvard Berkman interns, one State House News reporter, and three citizen journalists -- are inevitably incomplete. But we hope this coming together shows more fully the wide array of hearings before the court, the sheer volume of cases, and the fact that this is all happening every day, outside of normal public view.

We realized it's easier than you might think for loosely affiliated citizens to collaborate on a one-off project (read: Twitter + Google Docs).

There were unsurprisingly a wide variety of cases. Some rough tallies: Assault & Battery (15, of which 3 were labeled as domestic violence), disorderly conduct (4), trespassing (3), resisting arrest (1), uninsured and/or unlicensed motor vehicle operation (5), speeding (3), shoplifting (5), larceny over $250 (1), receiving stolen property (2), distribution of an illegal substance (3), section 35 (1), sealed record request (3), interpreter needed (1).

This day was exceptional not by any standard of caseload or substance, only that more of us were there to see it and relay stories. For me and Val, the longer we're in court streaming, the clearer it is that we're sitting on a relatively unchecked sociological goldmine.

Opening Court Data

These notes from last month's experiment are, at the least, a compelling glance at the river of data flowing through our local courts every single day.

At best they offer a new angle on approaching larger questions: How do we get to a place where public court data is more accessible? Why aren't the stats being tracked more extensively and automatically in the name of scientifically diagnosing societal ills?

The Boston Globe recently published an extensive three-part series on Massachusetts drunken driving prosecutions, which undoubtedly required massive reporting energy. While that energy will always be required for strong narrative journalism, shouldn't reporters and the public at large alike have easier access to court proceedings to begin with? Wouldn't the state be better off if tracking the operation of its courts didn't require the Herculean effort of a crack, paid investigative team?

Thanks again to everyone who helped make this possible. Our aim at this point, as always, is to provide a window into the everyday landscape of our legal system. Beyond that, we hope efforts like this lead to smarter methods to inform and awaken the public -- to be a better radar for a community's prevalent crimes.

What do you think? What do you see? What should we do differently if we host another event like this?

July 19 2011

15:28

OpenCourt's Balancing Act: Redacting Sensitive Info vs. First Amendment

OpenCourt, our Knight Foundation-funded project devised to help make courts more transparent, is facing a legal challenge soon to be heard by a judge in the highest court in Massachusetts.

The central issue at stake is a First Amendment question of whether the court can order a news organization to redact material that has been presented to the public in an open courtroom.

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On July 8, WBUR, a public radio station, filed a response memo as well as a supplemental affidavit of our executive producer to the state's Supreme Judicial Court.

The documents are the latest in a lengthy legal exchange between the Norfolk County District Attorney's office and Quincy District Court judges over the redaction from the public record of the name of an underage alleged victim of sexual abuse which was accidentally blurted during a suspect's dangerousness hearing two months ago.

Two-Day Delay

OpenCourt publicly live-streams daily video of the court's First Session proceedings and posts the footage after an interim of two days. This delay is to allow reasonable room for redaction requests and to edit video in extraordinary circumstances, according to WBUR's journalistic standards and as outlined in OpenCourt's initial archiving guidelines.

We have not posted the May 27 archive episode at issue, pending the upcoming appeal hearing on Aug. 4 before a single justice of the Supreme Judicial Court, namely Justice Margot Botsford.

As mentioned in our filings, we would have removed from footage the name of the underage alleged victim and any information in court that would identify her, regardless of a court order. Such an order, however, represents a challenge to basic First Amendment press rights, specifically relating to issues of prior restraint. We are obligated as a press entity to clarify that our actions are voluntary and not mandated by the state.

Perhaps the most famous prior restraint case was the New York Times publishing of the Pentagon Papers in 1971. The leaked secret Department of Defense study extensively documented the U.S. government's Vietnam War history. The federal government sought to suppress the information in the documents. However, the Times' argument triumphed when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the press had a First Amendment right to publish information important to citizens' understanding of its government's policies.

Preventing Harm

In another case more relevant to ours, our lawyers write that in Nebraska Press Assn. v. Stuart in 1979:

The U.S. Supreme Court reasoned a prior restraint was not appropriate because there were no express findings that harm would occur upon publication. Moreover, there was no demonstrative evidence that other measures would be unable to prevent those harms ... as Mr. Davidow's affidavit sets forth, OpenCourt has taken other measures to prevent exactly the harm that concerns the Commonwealth.

We have every intention of protecting the latter, and over months have constructed guidelines with our Advisory Board, the public, and an open "working group" at the court. The guidelines are a living document.

The outcome of this case will set important guidance for the future operation of this project and others like it. More importantly, it could also significantly shape the legal lens through which the First Amendment is viewed when it comes to emerging technology in general, and specifically towards live Internet video-streaming.

Photo by of gavel by bloomsberries via Flickr.

May 03 2011

17:00

Reality TV: OpenCourt has begun its livestream of the judicial system

OpenCourt is about as real as reality TV can get when it doesn’t involve Kardashians, real housewives, or people trapped on an island. That’s because OpenCourt, which launched yesterday, offers a view inside the legal system — specifically, the Quincy District Court here in Massachusetts, where traffic infractions, drug cases, and arraignments of all kinds now unfold not only in the courtroom, but also via streaming video.

The streaming is the next step in what was formerly known as Order in the Court 2.0, the winner of a 2010 Knight News Challenge grant and a project with an explicit goal of making the courts as transparent as the other branches of government. It’s something that seems simple as a premise: Put a webcam in a courtroom, and, boom, livestreamed court proceedings. But of course it’s tricker than that; otherwise, the Knight Foundation may not have awarded $250,000 to the WBUR-led project.

“The truth of the matter is when we put this out there the concept is so simple,” John Davidow, OpenCourt’s executive producer, told me. “We’re just going to stream live what takes place in public.”

A test run for transparency

The tasks OpenCourt is addressing are technical as much as they are legal, and sometimes conventional. The project operates within the boundaries of camera-use in the courts (video recording is permitted here in Massachusetts but can be limited by judges — though the current law may be broadened). But it still must confront concerns from the legal community, and ultimately try to balance the idea of transparency with the right to a fair trial.

But since there is no universal standard for new media access when it comes to the legal system in the US, OpenCourt is also a test case. Walking into any random courtroom, there’s no way of knowing whether tweeting is allowed, whether recording is an option, or even whether the use of a laptop is acceptable. That’s why Davidow says OpenCourt is an experiment, and one that will need to be watched closely if it’s to be duplicated elsewhere.

“It’s a pilot,” Davidow told me. “It’s now a reality and off the white board. More and more issues will come forward.”

And already something has come forward. On its first day of operation, the Norfolk County District Attorney’s office filed a a motion to close access to OpenCourt’s archives. An attorney from the DA’s office said the archives would present a lasting, un-editable record if inappropriate or inaccurate information — the names of crime victims, say, or of confidential informants — were to come out in a hearing. Judge Mark Coven denied the motion, saying “respectfully, I can’t address hypotheticals.”

Defining an open system

The true hurdles for OpenCourt, as Davidow described them, come in defining the parameters of how, what, and when the video feed would be active. He and his staffJoe Spurr, OpenCourt’s director, and Val Wang, its producer — decided the video stream would be live only when a judge is presiding over a case and when an OpenCourt producer is present. (In other words, this won’t be the equivalent of a traffic cam staring at the bench.) Davidow said they decided that the judge (who has a laptop monitoring the feed) will have discretion over whether the video is online or not. And that will largely depend on the case, Davidow said. (Though, after consulting with their advisory group of lawyers, judges, academics, and others, the team decided not to broadcast restraining order hearings as a rule.) The team had to be mindful, Davidow noted, of how being transparent could cause additional harm to people or prevent them from appearing in court at all.

But rather than setting out more guidelines for limiting the use of live video, the OpenCourt team has tried to find ways to make the camera and what it represents less of an issue. Beginning late last year, they held a series of meetings with the community in and around the court to familiarize others with the project, the gear, and the people who would be filming hearings every day. The camera, and the producer who operates it, have their own pocket in the courtroom and have become something of a fixture. (On the stream, you might notice, not many folks look towards the camera.)

“When you put a TV camera some place, people eventually forget about it,” Davidow said. “There’s a comfort level with it; you get used to it. That has helped the project immensely.”

Watching OpenCourt is C-SPAN-esque — or maybe Court TV-esque (or is that now truTV-esque?) — minus the call-in shows and podium-thumping speeches from politicians. Defendants shuffle in and out, charges are explained, and things follow course from there. It’s an unfiltered eye into the legal process, like staring down at an engine as it’s working.

It’s also more than a little ironic: Courts are open, but are they open open? “Courts have enjoyed what they referred to as ‘virtual obscurity,’” Davidow said. “Yes, justice is done in public, but to see it you need to go to court.”

A judicial education

Watching the video feed also makes you appreciate the simplicity of the kit OpenCourt has put together to create such a seamless product. As the team explains on their “Open Your Court” page, a DIY run-through for filming your local legal system, they use a couple of MacBook Pros, a Canon HD camcorder, and Livestream to get things up and running. One of the project’s goals, said Spurr, is to offer other courts full guidance on using cameras in court — and that guidance includes technology details and other best practices. “It’s about iterability,” Spurr said, “and being able to create an ideal environment that is forward thinking: What could a courtroom look like?”

What OpenCourt is encouraging is more interaction with, if not more information about, the court system. Aside from the livestream, the project is also providing free WiFi at the courthouse for anyone who wants to come in to cover a case. In that, Davidow said, the project could be a boon to local bloggers and citizen journalists, giving them an additional resource for covering the community. It’s also clear that OpenCourt could be useful to understaffed newsrooms as a way of keeping track of cases as they move through the system. “I’d argue that nothing compares to actually being there and seeing with your own eyes,” he said. “At the same time, maybe some news organizations would find efficiency in that setup.” (The Quincy Patriot-Ledger has already embedded the OpenCourt stream in a story.)

While the goal is to throw open the doors of the court, it is also to educate the public about the court’s workings. Though one of the benefits of operating in a district court is that it’s the most accessible step in the judiciary (traffic/moving violations, fines, the types of misdemeanors you don’t want others to know about — all go through district court), there’s still an element of the unknown about how courts work. This is why, in addition to the stream on opencourt.us, you’ll also find a schedule of the day’s cases, a glossary of legal terms, and a rundown of the people who make the court work.

“One of the reasons the courts really embraced this idea is because people don’t understand some basic concepts,” Davidow said. “The courts felt this was a way for people to start learning about how justice is done in this country.”

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