Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Managing tweets from the courts

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In Manitoba, the courts have generally permitted reporters' live Twitter feeds to media web pages. Judges recognize getting the facts out quickly is a worthy exercise in the age of digital media.

Next month, Manitoba's courts will initiate a formal policy regarding courtroom use of electronic devices. Tweeting and blogging from all levels of Manitoba courts by official media and lawyers will be expressly permitted as of Sept. 1. The general public, however, must either turn off, or disable transmission from, smartphones and tablet computers in court.

Who can transmit what from the courtroom in the age of social media is a vexed issue. The new policy tries to strike a balance between the public's right to know and ensuring witnesses and parties in hearings and trials are treated fairly.

The policy doesn't completely foreclose members of the public from tweeting or blogging. Anyone can request permission from the judge to use an electronic device. Overall, the policy is commendably flexible. It also gives the judge the discretion to allow, or prohibit, use of an electronic device by anyone - media, lawyers or public - where he or she thinks it appropriate.

Twitter works well as a bulletin service. In the hands of accredited journalists, it provides play-by-play of courtroom events. However, tweets from members of the public often stray from unfiltered coverage of proceedings.

Particularly pernicious are tweets that comment on a witness's or accused's physical appearance or clothing. Equally prejudicial are tweets that veer into speculation about a witness's veracity, based on his or her demeanour on the stand. But most problematic of all are tweets that venture into opinion. Saying something apt and perceptive about a trial can rarely be done in Twitter's maximum 140-characters format. Saying something stupid or wrong, however, takes few words.

An inaccurate or unfair tweet can do a lot of damage. Once launched into cyberspace, it's out there for good. Corrections, or even counter-tweets, can be posted, but by then often the harm's been done and the message can be re-posted in blogs, Internet chat rooms and other social media.

Witnesses can view these prejudicial postings, and it can influence their testimony in court. Worse yet, jurors with smartphones or tablet computers are liable to access inadmissible evidence or irrelevant reports. Cases are supposed to be decided on the basis of evidence heard within the four walls of the courtroom, not missives from cyberspace.

The new guidelines are a welcome attempt to maintain open courts and accommodate digital technology, but also preserve the right to a fair and impartial trial.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 12, 2013 A8

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