Who was first to tweet from court?


Social media has thus far had a mixed reception in the courtroom.

Tweets from those involved in court cases have been highly publicised recently. Of course, jurors are not allowed to make any kind of contact with the accused. Exactly that led to Manchester mother of three Joanne Fraill, 40, being sentenced to eight months in jail by London’s high court last month for exchanging Facebook messages with the accused in a drug trial while she was serving on the jury. She also searched online for information about another defendant while she and the other jurors were still deliberating. All this went against clear instructions from the judge to jurors to stay away from the Internet.

But who was the first person to send a tweet from court – and who was the first court reporter to do so with the permission of the judge?

Times journalist Alexi Mostrous made history with this tweet in December, 2010: ‘Judge just gave me explicit permission to tweet proceedings if it’s quiet and doesn’t disturb anything’. He was tweeting from Wikileaks founder Julian Assange’s bail hearing in London, where chief magistrate Howard Riddle had granted permission to reporters to use social media to post updates on the sensational court appearance of the free Internet warrior. A few days later the High Court banned the use of Twitter in the appeal against that decision and later ruled it would be at the discretion of the judge in future cases.

It was not a world first because other judges had permitted the use of Twitter in their courtrooms. Just over a year earlier, Australian Federal Court judge Dennis Cowdroy allowed technology reporters to tweet from his Sydney courtroom during the landmark iiNet copyright case.

In February 2009 in Stockholm a defendant in the Pirate Party case, Peter Sunde (@brokep), tweeted from the courtroom: “Might this be the first twitter from within a court case? It must be a #spectrial.” It was not. Some judges in the US had already let reporters tweet from court. Judge Mark Bennett in Iowa allowed reporter Trish Mehaffy from the Cedar Rapids Gazette to blog from his courtroom on January 27, 2008. Others were much slower to embrace the practice, as the Citizen Media Law Project noted. New Jersey Judge David E. Grine certainly did not tolerate drink-driving defendant Scott Ruzal tweeting from the courtroom in May 2009: “When all else fails, try ignorance. I watched four cops lie on a witness stand today and I didn’t say a word”. German courts were also loathe to allow the practice, with a reporter evicted from the District Court Koblenz when he attempted to tweet from a murder trial.

An early tweet from a criminal justice situation was that of student journalist James Karl Buck who in April 2008 sent a single word message – “Arrested” – on his way to the police station after being apprehended during an anti-government protest in Egypt.

That said, it is hard to distinguish micro-blogging via Twitter from straight ‘blogging’ using other media forms in the first few months of Twitter’s existence. The forensic trail of who might have tweeted from the courtroom is harder to follow in those early days because news reports may well have used the term ‘blogging’ when Twitter was still relatively unknown.

By mid-2011 social media was even being used by the police as a PR vehicle. In the UK, Birmingham police ran a ‘tweet-a-thon’ from a magistrate’s court to show followers how their arrests worked their way through the system. And in Australia, the Queensland Police Service allowed citizens to debate crimes, arrests and court appearances on its Facebook wall, the subject of my last blog.

It is important to clarify as soon as possible who was indeed the first to use the medium for reporting purposes because we all know that once such a first has been claimed it is almost impossible to correct the historical record.

The media have so often been wrong in claiming ‘firsts’ that it would be a mistake to do so here.

So, who was the first reporter to tweet from a courtroom?

Are there any advances on Trish Mehaffy in Iowa in early 2008, who according to the ABA Law Journal micro-blogged with the permission of Judge Mark Bennett?

Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer! My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

© Mark Pearson 2011


UPDATES: See: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1888025
‘A Little Bird Told Me About the Trial: Revising Court Rules to Allow Reporting from the Courtroom Via Twitter’. BNA Electronic Commerce & Law Report, Vol. 15, September 15, 2010
Mark L. Tamburri, et. al. Abstract
Over the past year, a handful of courts around the country have confronted the novel issue of whether to allow reporting of criminal trials from inside the courtroom via Twitter, the micro-blogging and social networking service. While courtroom “tweeting” provides the public with innovative and current access to trial information, certain rules banning or otherwise restricting cameras in the courtroom can also be read to prohibit tweeting from the courtroom. These rules, however, were never drafted with Twitter in mind. Given the increasing use of Twitter and related technologies by mainstream news media, it is likely that state rules committees will soon be seeking to revise the language of certain rules. This article provides a brief overview of the media’s increasing use of Twitter to report on trials from within courtrooms. The balance of the article details considerations – both legal and practical – that rules committees will necessarily have to weigh to address this emerging trend.

… and via @MarshallYoum: CA law: jurors will be prohibited from tweeting from courtroom. bit.ly/pxyqVs Gov Brown signs the new state law.



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