Just in time for Sunshine Week, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has ruled in favor of courtroom transparency project OpenCourt and its ability to record and stream online video of public court proceedings.
The decision means that OpenCourt can continue to do what it set out to do since its inception, despite the state’s attempts to stop it. Judges cited OpenCourt’s First Amendment rights to publish audio and video of court proceedings “by ‘streaming live’ over the Internet, publicly archiving on the Web site or otherwise.”
“This is obviously a good day for OpenCourt,” the project’s executive director, John Davidow, told me. (Full disclosure: Davidow was my news director when I worked at WBUR, the public radio station where OpenCourt is based.) “We felt that it was really an important right for us to fight for in the courts, because as the technology changes going forward, it doesn’t mean that the editorial processes or the rights of the First Amendment change.”
OpenCourt was launched with a Knight News Challenge grant in 2010, originally under the name Order in the Court 2.0. The project first turned on its cameras in a Boston-area courtroom in May 2011, but by July, the local district attorney’s office had filed a pair of motions aimed at shutting off the OpenCourt livestream and preventing it from publishing courtroom video to online archives.
According to OpenCourt’s timeline of the case, a judge denied the motion to take down the livestream — but she didn’t rule right away on the motion related to archival video. The state then renewed its motions against OpenCourt after a district attorney blurted out the name of an alleged victim, a minor, in a kidnapping case. At that time, the judge ruled to prevent OpenCourt from publishing the video of the blurt.
In response, WBUR’s lawyers sent a letter to the judge saying that his order violated OpenCourt’s First Amendment rights. OpenCourt said it would have redacted the name of the minor, following standard practice among news organizations.
Davidow says that the ruling means that decisions about what to cover will remain in the hands of the public, not the government. But he also says there’s more work to be done to modernize courts coverage, including propagating best practices and better educating the public.
“When there are less and less reporters out there to be the bridge to what’s going on in the nation’s courts, there needs to be a way for the public to be informed about how justice is administered in this country,” Davidow said.
Here’s the court’s ruling: