Winnipeg Free Press - ONLINE EDITION

Twitter-gate

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 The wheels of justice may move slowly, but technology is ensuring that court and crime stories travel faster than ever down the information highway.

 And that is clearly making a lot of people nervous.

 Take Tuesday for example, where myself and the Free Press somehow found ourselves at the centre of a mini-courtroom controversy. It ended up being much-ado-about-nothing, but the fact the issue came up speaks volumes about the current legal climate.

 Some background:

 A high-profile trial began this week pitting alleged white supremacist parents against Child and Family Services. At stake is the fate of two young children who have been apprehended largely on the grounds the parents are allegedly poisoning their minds with racist thoughts and beliefs.

 CFS tried to have the media banned from covering the case, believing any publicity would cause further harm to the children. Several media outlets, including the Free Press, fought the application on the grounds the case is of national (and perhaps international) interest because of the unique issues involved and the public deserved to hear about it.

 CFS claims promoting hatred and racism in children amounts to emotional abuse. The oldest child’s stepfather, who is the biological father of the younger child, has filed a constitutional challenge claiming his rights to freedom of speech, religion and expression have been infringed upon and the children should be returned immediately.

 In the end, the judge rejected CFS’s bid and granted permission for reporters to attend the trial.

 And so there we were, Monday morning, pens at the ready. But many of us were equipped with another tool - the Blackberry. At the Free Press, our coverage plans included live, as-it-happens reporting direct from the courtroom through the wildly-popular Twitter website and my personal account, twitter.com/mikeoncrime. This would be in addition to our extensive website and newspaper coverage.

 But there was just one catch - the judge ruled, just as the case was beginning, that all pagers must be shut off in court and texting, "Tweeting" or any other form of electronic communication from inside the room was banned.

 This stems from her decision to allow the media to cover the trial - but with the provision that she reserves the right to re-visit that decision at any time if evidence begins to emerge that she believes may cause "undue harm" to the children if publicized.

 As a result, instantaneous reporting from court was a no-no, as the judge clearly wanted to allow for a brief period of time to pass to ensure what we were all hearing in court wasn’t going to be the subject of any motions, bans, etc., before it was put on public display.

 And that was fine. I quickly let my followers on Twitter know this, posting the following "Tweet" at 10:14 a.m. Monday just before I headed into court.

 "Bad news - judge in CFS alleged "neo nazi" case has banned texting in court, won’t be able to do live updates, but will on breaks. Stay tuned."

 The trial then began. I sat in court, along with other media, and never touched my Blackberry. It remained turned off the entire time. Only when they took the lunch break - and I was out of the courtroom - did I begin to post a series of rapid-fire Twitter updates about what had happened during the previous two hours.
 
I posted another bunch of updates during a mid-afternoon break and again at the end of the day once court had closed. All of this was made explicity clear in my time-stamped messages.

 At least I thought it had.

 Imagine my surprise when I showed up in court Tuesday morning to learn the lawyer representing the stepfather in this case had accused me of violating the judge’s order by posting live Twitter updates from court on Monday. She even had printed off transcripts of my "Tweets" and showed them to the judge.

 I was stunned. Not only was this 100 per cent wrong and personally insulting, but it was potentially hazardous to all media given the judge’s previous warning and the fact she sitll had the right to re-examine whether the media could cover the case. The last thing we needed was to have our rights taken away by a false accusation such as this.

 I waited until a break and spoke with the lawyer for CFS, letting him know that I absolutely had not violated the ban and my Twitter posts would back me up on that. I told him I take court orders seriously and would never snub my nose at one. He suggested I speak directly with the lawyer who had made the claims to see what could be done.

 Unfortunately, she didn’t seem interested in my explanation and refused my request to go back to court and "correct the record" by telling the judge she was clearly mistaken in her claims. She suggested we get a media lawyer involved if we wanted to pursue the matter any further.

And that’s exactly what we did. Two hours later, just before court resumed for the afternoon sitting, a lawyer appeared on behalf of the Free Press to set the record straight. She assured the judge all orders had been complied with and would continue to be complied with. The judge was satisfied with the explanation and thanked the lawyer for coming down to clear things up. No harm, no foul.

  In the process, a Canadian record may have been set for the most times the word "Twitter" and "Tweeting" have ever been uttered in a courtroom.
 
In the couple months I’ve been on Twitter, I’ve routinely updated live from court for sentencing hearings, jury verdicts and trials. Hundreds of followers seem to enjoy the ability to have a front-row seat on what’s happening, as it’s happening.
 
This is the first time an issue has ever arisen - although I don’t expect it to be the last.

 After all, it’s clear everyone is still trying to wrap their heads around technology and the role it plays in various parts of our lives. I guess the storied-old justice system shouldn’t be any different.
 
In the meantime, you can find me at twitter.com/mikeoncrime - keeping you posted from inside AND outside the courts!
 

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About Mike McIntyre

Journalist, national radio show host, author, pundit and cruise director ... Mike McIntyre loves to keep busy.

Mike is the justice reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press, where he has worked since 1997. He produces and hosts the weekly talk radio show Crime and Punishment, which runs on the Corus Radio Network in several Canadian cities.

Born and bred in Winnipeg, Mike graduated from River East Collegiate and completed his journalism studies in the Creative Communications program at Red River College.

He and his wife, Chassity, have two children.

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