Judges should maintain control of electronics rules

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has proposed changing its rules of criminal procedure. Since early January, court officials have tossed around the idea of more clearly defining their ban on the transmission of communications in state courtrooms.

Officials are now proposing a ban on computers, iPads, cell phones, and other electronic devices that would allow real-time reporting ­—via text or tweet, for example.

According to supporters of the changes, the proposal is meant to make sure jury members don’t base decisions on media reports; to protect witnesses from intimidation; and to minimize distractions during court proceedings.

Rules that limit communication between the courtroom and the outside world are already in place and already as defined as they need to be.

Currently, the Rules of Criminal Procedure of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania assert the court can prohibit communication via telephone, radio, television, or advanced communication technology. Additionally, photography and videography are prohibited.

However, each judge presiding over a courtroom is allowed to interpret these rules as he or she sees fit.

Some Pennsylvania courtrooms have allowed real-time reporting to take place.

According to the Centre Daily Times, live tweeting was allowed during the preliminary hearing of two Pennsylvania State University officials involved in the Jerry Sandusky scandal.

Live reporting from the courtroom already has adequate restrictions. To add new and heavier shackles to courtroom reporting would only slow down the inevitable dissemination of information. If the current rule is changed, reporters will still report live; they will just be running in and out of the courtroom handing slips of paper to waiting colleagues or making quick phone calls to the office. Depending on the courtroom, reporters have to do this anyway. But that is the sort of freedom of interpretation that makes the current law work just fine; judges can decide how to run their courtrooms on a case-by-case basis.

As Judge Mark Bennet of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Iowa said in an interview with the ABA Journal, “I thought the public’s right to know what goes on in federal court and the transparency that would be given the proceedings by live-blogging outweighed any potential prejudice to the defendant.... I allowed it because of my belief that we are the most mysterious branch of federal government and we need to find ways to be more transparent.”

It is essential to protect the already limited reporting rights that journalists have in the courtroom. The proposed change in the Rules of Criminal Procedure would only undermine transparency and hinder the public’s right to know what is going on in its court system.