Norfolk DA, OpenCourt battle over video archives

John Davidow

A suspect’s lawyer blurts out the name of a 15-year-old girl whom prosecutors say was forced into prostitution. Several newspaper reporters hear the name. Even though they have the right to use it under the First Amendment, it’s understood that they won’t — it would be unethical journalistically, it would compromise the criminal case and it would traumatize the alleged victim.

Despite all that, the district attorney’s office goes to court to prevent a news organization’s video from being posted online, even though the folks who run that organization say they have no intention of uploading it until the identifying information has been removed.

In essence, that’s how OpenCourt characterizes a lawsuit brought by Norfolk District Attorney Michael Morrissey, which will be heard before Supreme Judicial Court Justice Margaret Botsford later today. The Boston Globe reports on the suit here; WBUR Radio (90.9 FM), with which OpenCourt is affiliated, reports on it here; and Open Court has its own take, with lots of background material, here.

Headed by WBUR’s executive editor for new media, John Davidow, OpenCourt received a $250,000 Knight News Challenge grant to livestream court proceedings and to make it easier for journalists, both professional and citizen, to provide coverage via Twitter and live-blogging. OpenCourt began livestreaming from Quincy District Court in May.

The issue of archiving those videos has proved to be contentious, with Morrissey’s office arguing that the archives — including the one involving the 15-year-old — could compromise “the privacy and safety of victims and witnesses.” Davidow responds that OpenCourt would be guided by the same ethical guidelines as any news organization, and that a legally imposed ban would be an unconstitutional abridgement of free speech. Davidow tells the Globe’s John Ellement:

This is really taking reporting that is done every day and then trying to take the editorial aspects away from journalists and put them in the hands of the state to decide what is published and what is not…. [O]nce we lawfully covered a story that was published, then it is up to the news organization to decide what to do with that material.

What Morrissey’s office is trying to do is to take long-established customs recognized by journalists and law-enforcement authorities alike and codify those customs into law, even though there is no reason to believe OpenCourt would act less responsibly than, say, the Quincy Patriot Ledger. It would set a dangerous precedent, and I hope the SJC does what is clearly the right thing.

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3 thoughts on “Norfolk DA, OpenCourt battle over video archives

  1. Pingback: Full Mass. Supreme Judicial Court to Hear OpenCourt Archive Arguments | OpenCourt

  2. Ted McEnroe

    What an interesting opportunity for media-savvy attorneys! If the DA gets his way, then all I need to do to keep my client out of the news is say something that just has to be redacted. I can get the video impounded for review, and while that happens, the media moves on to the next thing.

    I assume the rules that would apply to OpenCourt would apply to all video news organizations, which can at this time broadcast and post online video from proceedings as well.

    The SJC does need to do the right thing here – otherwise, OpenCourt’s efforts to make the judicial system more transparent will end up being dealing a major blow to that very effort.

  3. Patrick McCabe

    “Davidow responds that OpenCourt would be guided by the same ethical guidelines as any news organization, and that a legally imposed ban would be an unconstitutional abridgement of free speech.”

    The question is how do these “ethical” guidelines mesh with the the First Amendment rights of public.

    WBUR and the courts have worked out their own self censorship.

    Unfortunately these restrictions include not recording 209a hearing.

    The recording of court proceedings have improved the functioning of this one court.

    When WBUR first turned on the camera’s illegal jailing of indigents was a common occurrence.

    Although no “official” media organization commented on this abuse, citizen groups including the Fatherhood Coalition did, which brought swift action by the court.

    For sometime, no illegal jailing has been seen on WBUR’s recordings. Hopefully this means this practice has been stopped.

    It may be that the only way to halt the abuses of our courts is to have a camera in each courtroom, without censorship , where the public can view the proceeds and make objects when laws are ignored and citizens abused.

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