Norfolk County DA, Public Defenders Target OpenCourt in Quincy, Mass.

By Dan Kennedy

Kennedy

Despite a ruling by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in its favor earlier this year, OpenCourt continues to run into legal roadblocks in its quest to cover proceedings in Quincy District Court.

In July, the office of Norfolk County District Attorney Michael Morrissey and the Committee for Public Counsel Services — that is, public defenders — sought to block OpenCourt from expanding its livestreaming operations to a second courtroom known as Jury Room A. OpenCourt’s account, along with relevant documents from all parties, can be found by clicking here.

Arguments were heard Aug. 9 before Supreme Court Justice Margot Botsford. (Click  here for audio of the hearing). There was no indication when a decision will be handed down.

According to OpenCourt:

As of this writing, OpenCourt is the only news organization currently prohibited from covering trials in Courtroom A, also known as Jury Room A. Rule 1:19, the Massachusetts Camera in the Court statute, presumes that courtrooms are open to media. …

 

Members of OpenCourt have for months openly planned to begin coverage of Jury Room A, and were set to begin livestreaming proceedings on Monday, July 16. Those plans are currently in a temporary state of limbo as we await single justice review.

OpenCourt, affiliated with WBUR Radio (90.9 FM), is an innovative news project that seeks to open the historically closed court system to the eyes and ears of the public. Launched in the spring of 2011 with the help of a $250,000 Knight News Challenge grant, it has found itself entangled with Morrissey ever since.

This past March, the SJC ruled against Morrissey’s office in its bid to block OpenCourt from posting the archives of its livestreamed court proceedings. A defense lawyer had blurted out the name of a 15-year-old victim of rape and kidnapping, and Morrissey argued that a legal ban was necessary to prevent the victim’s name from being posted in OpenCourt’s video archives.

OpenCourt executive director John Davidow responded that his organization had no intention of posting the footage until all identifying information about the victim had been removed — but that he nevertheless had a First Amendment right to post it, no different from the newspaper and television reporters who were in court that day and who also learned the girl’s name.

The SJC agreed with OpenCourt, ruling 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 [the state constitution].

Virtually all news organizations refrain from using the names of sexual-assault victims, whether minors or not, as a matter of custom and ethics, not because of any law. The U.S. Supreme Court, in the 1989 case of Florida Star v. B.J.F., ruled that the First Amendment generally forbids states from enforcing such laws.

In July, Morrissey received a Boston Phoenix Muzzle Award for attempting to block OpenCourt.

Dan Kennedy is an assistant professor of journalism at Northeastern University.

Editor’s Note: A shorter version of this blog post first appeared at the New England First Amendment Center, a partnership between the New England First Amendment Coalition and Northeastern University in Boston.

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