OpenCourt wins a crucial First Amendment case

John Davidow of WBUR and OpenCourt

Please pardon the near-silence I’ve been maintaining here. I’m co-chairing a faculty search committee, and this week and next leave me with little time for anything other than that and teaching. (And picking arguments on Twitter.)

But I do want to call your attention to an important decision by the state’s Supreme Judicial Court. On Wednesday, the court ruled that OpenCourt, the WBUR-affiliated project that offers gavel-to-gavel coverage of proceedings in Quincy District Court, cannot be ordered by the government to redact any of its coverage.

Essentially, what happened was this. The lawyer for the defendant in a horrific child-rape case blurted out the name of the victim during public court proceedings. District Attorney Michael Morrissey sought to impose an order prohibiting OpenCourt from including the girl’s name in its video archives.

OpenCourt argued, rightly in my view, that as a matter of standard journalistic practice, no news organization present would use the girl’s name — but that it would violate the First Amendment to order such discretion. Underscoring OpenCourt’s argument is that several news organizations were present that day, yet Morrissey sought an order only against OpenCourt.

The SJC’s decision says in part:

We conclude that any order restricting OpenCourt’s ability to publish — by “streaming live” over the Internet, publicly archiving on the Web site or otherwise — existing audio and video recordings of court room proceedings represents a form of prior restraint on the freedoms of the press and speech protected by the First Amendment and art.

OpenCourt and the DA’s office have been at loggerheads from the beginning. The SJC’s ruling should provide some clarity to what had been a murky situation.

John Davidow, executive editor of new media at WBUR and the force behind OpenCourt, recently spoke about the project and the SJC case with my media-law students. Joe Spurr, OpenCourt’s director, was a student in my media-law class a few years ago.

What they’re doing is an important experiment in opening up what has traditionally been the most closed part of government.