NEWS

B.C. Courts Open Up To Twitter, Social Media

08/01/2012 06:29 EDT | Updated 10/01/2012 05:12 EDT
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VANCOUVER - B.C. courtrooms will no longer be tweet-free zones, after a decision to allow some limited use of electronic communication devices in the public gallery during trials.

But it won't be a tweet-for-all.

Just lawyers and accredited members of the media will be allowed to text during trials at the Supreme and provincial courts.

Members of the public will only be allowed to do so from the galleries of the B.C. Court of Appeal because cases in that arena are on written record with no witnesses.

Chief Justice Robert Bauman of the B.C. Supreme Court said the new rules and subsequent embracing of social media will allow for greater public access to the legal system through media.

"It's permitting more instantaneous discussion of what's happening in the courtroom," said Bauman.

"It's allowing a whole new segment of the population, who may only get their news in this way, to again have access to what's going on in courtrooms."

The new policy makes B.C. another province along with Alberta and Nova Scotia to allow such devices in the courtroom.

But, with the power to tweet comes responsibility, which is one of the reasons the public has not been given carte blanche to make use of the new policy, Bauman suggested.

He said journalists have a professional responsibility to not release information that could harm a trial or even accidentally identify those given identity protection in exchange for their testimony.

Even still, he said there remains fear a protected witness could, through some kind of mistake, be identified.

"That risk already exists, we have to protect against it as best we can," he said.

Privacy of witnesses has been a serious concern in deciding what media tools will be allowed to help document proceedings, which has hindered television.

Though full-scale televising of trails is not allowed in B.C., sound recording devices are already permitted in court for lawyers and journalists who have signed an undertaking and agreed to not broadcast the recording.

Bauman said the experience with sound recording devices has been a success, but that success, combined with new ability to text, does not necessarily mean the province is closer to televised trials.

"There are definite differences between describing in words what somebody saw in the courtroom versus filming the raw emotions of the individual giving the evidence and the privacy concerns around that," he said.

A statement issued by the courts said the new rules reflect the importance of social media and its influence in modern times.

It also said the change will allow for greater confidence in the courts as an essential institution of democracy.

Courtroom tweeting has also sped up dissemination of information, as Bauman predicted.

As sordid details of the crimes committed by Col. Russell Williams were read aloud in a Belleville, Ont., courtroom in 2010, online readers were able to follow the graphic testimony almost instantaneously.

Reporters raced to tweet and blog updates from inside the court, providing an uncensored account of the murders, sex assaults and break-ins Williams pleaded guilty to committing.

Earlier this year a judge in Illinois banned tweeting from his courtroom during the trial of the man convicted of killing members of Oscar-winner Jennifer Hudson's family.

A spokesman for the judge said "tweeting takes away from the dignity of the courtroom."

As well, 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.''