By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Norfolk DA seeks to close a window at OpenCourt

OpenCourt, an ambitious project affiliated with WBUR Radio (90.9 FM) that’s designed to shine some sunlight on court proceedings, has been dealt a setback at the hands of Norfolk County District Attorney Michael Morrissey.

Last week OpenCourt began webcasting a livestream from Quincy District Court. But several days into the experiment, Morrissey asked that archives of the video stream be closed to the public. A motion (pdf) filed by his office claims that “the privacy and safety of victims and witnesses could be seriously compromised,” especially in cases involving gang violence. The motion cites the possibility that the jury pool could be tainted as well.

The OpenCourt blog responds:

The letter and the motions came as a great surprise to us, since we have for the past four months met with all stakeholders of the court, including the District Attorney, to ensure we implement this groundbreaking pilot project responsibly and respectfully.

While we will continue to record sessions, we have voluntarily decided to suspend posting the archives until sometime after May 18, 2011, as we try to work out a practical solution to the concerns raised by the District Attorney.

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.

“It’s a pilot,” Davidow recently told Justin Ellis of the Nieman Journalism Lab. “It’s now a reality and off the white board. More and more issues will come forward.”

What makes this sticky is that OpenCourt has no First Amendment right to archive its video, or even to livestream. The project is entirely dependent on the goodwill of court officials. Yet the traditional closed-door mentality of our justice system helps foster suspicion and cynicism — exactly the negative attitudes that Davidow and company are trying to break down by making it easy for us to see exactly what takes place.

Let’s hope Morrissey thinks better of his knee-jerk reaction to openness and gives OpenCourt the room it needs to keep moving forward.

Note: OpenCourt’s struggle with Morrissey is also being tracked by the New England First Amendment Center at Northeastern University, to whose blog I occasionally contribute.

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  1. Rich Lindhoss

    Putting gang violence aside for a minute, what about sexual assault cases? I work with victims who absolutely would not take part in any proceeding if doing so meant her name and face would not only be broadcast once but archived forever as well.

    Traditional media have recognized this and have adopted policies to protect those victims. I don’t know if OpenCourt does, but I know that news of its presence and archives will reduce victim cooperation in those cases, denying them justice and allowing the people who hurt them to reoffend.

    It doesn’t sound like a “knee-jerk reaction” by Morrissey if he’s been working with the program for four months, and protecting the privacy of victims shouldn’t be pooh-poohed as a “closed-door mentality.”

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Rich: The FAQ answers your questions. Sounds like there is zero chance of victims’ being webcast. Also, keep in mind that the judge remains the king (or queen) of the courtroom and can order the livestream turned off at any time. What Morrissey wants is a blanket prohibition on archiving.

  2. “the king (or queen) of the courtroom and can order the livestream turned off at any time.” — Dan Kennedy

    It would seem that the King of Kings — or Queens — is exercising his prerogative

    Not only victims and witnesses at risk, so, too, are jurors.

    The media’s right to information does not exist as a constitutional guarantee.

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