Journalists now allowed to tweet, live blog from Utah courtrooms

Lilly Chapa | Secret Courts | News | November 20, 2012

The Utah Supreme Court on Monday approved a rule that will allow journalists to tweet, live stream and blog from the courtroom for the first time in the state's history.

The rule, which goes into effect April 1, permits the media to use laptops, cell phones and cameras in court and makes Utah’s notoriously restrictive courtrooms some of the most accessible.

“This rule recognizes that the proper response isn’t to bury your head in the sand and prohibit or ignore [electronic devices],” said attorney Jeff Hunt, who helped craft the new rule. “You need to recognize that people rely on these devices, and we have to craft rules that recognize that while still protecting the privacy and safety interests involved in a legal proceeding.”

Under the existing rule, established more than 25 years ago, video and audio recording was only allowed in appellate courts. Still photography of trial and appellate proceedings was permitted at the discretion of the presiding judge. The committee's final report cites the Radio Television Digital News Association's state-by-state rankings of cameras in courts. Utah sits in the bottom tier, which includes states "that have such restrictive trial coverage rules that coverage is essentially prohibited."

The Utah Supreme Court in February 2011 established a committee to study the impact of expanding media coverage in courtrooms. The committee was made up of judges, courtroom administrators and media attorneys, including Hunt.

The committee gathered information on how courtrooms in other states use cameras and if they affected a defendant’s right to a fair trial and courtroom behavior, according to Hunt. The new rule adopts a presumption that electronic media coverage is permitted in proceedings that are open to the public.

Hunt believes the change will enhance the ability of reporters, bloggers and citizen journalists to report on what is happening in courtrooms in real time.

“The language in the rule defining a news reporter is quite broad, and we drafted it that way intentionally,” Hunt said. “It includes any person who is gathering information for dissemination to the public. You don’t have to be connected to or employed by a traditional media outlet.”

In order to use electronics, journalists will still have to submit applications to the court, and they are not allowed to take pictures of jurors, minors or attorney documents.

Brooke Adams, a courts reporter for The Salt Lake Tribune, said live-tweeting will make a big difference in her reporting.

“I covered a case which played out in a Washington state courtroom and I was able to live tweet from the proceedings, and it was hugely followed,” Adams said. “I would imagine that the ability to do that now would be something we’d really want to do for certain cases, and it’d be quite popular with readers.”

Adams also pointed out that in the past, court administrators could have their phones in the courtroom, and would sometimes live tweet a hearing while journalists could not. The new rule will eliminate such discrimination.