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OpenCourt wins another legal challenge to online streaming in the courtroom

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court says OpenCourt must not be singled out from rules that apply to other media.

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.

                                   
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Mark Coddington    April 11, 2014
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