No twittering

Judge Bans Twitter From Court

Twittering from court is prohibited, according to a federal judge in Georgia who banned spectators from sending live updates from a criminal trial.

U.S. District Judge Clay Land in Georgia wrote that Rule 53 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure should be interpreted to ban Twitter.

Rule 53 says: "Except as otherwise provided by a statute or these rules, the court must not permit the taking of photographs in the courtroom during judicial proceedings or the broadcasting of judicial proceedings from the courtroom."

A reporter for the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer had asked permission to Twitter updates from the corruption trial of local attorney Mark Shelnutt, which was scheduled to start on Monday.

Land wrote in his four-page order last week, which was noted on

The Court finds that the term "broadcasting" in Rule 53 includes sending electronic messages from a courtroom that contemporaneously describe the trial proceedings and are instantaneously available for public viewing. Although "broadcasting" is typically associated with the dissemination of information via television or radio, its plain meaning is broader than that. The definition of "broadcast" includes "casting or scattering in all directions" and "the act of making widely known." Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (Unabridged) 280 (1993). It cannot be reasonably disputed that "twittering," as previously described, would result in casting to the general public and thus making widely known the trial proceedings. Moreover, it appears clear that the drafters of Rule 53 intended to extend the Rule's reach beyond the transmission of trial proceedings via television and radio.

This is only one trial judge's interpretation of Rule 53, of course, and other courts may not follow suit; one judge in Kansas ruled earlier this year that Twitter was perfectly fine, and sister site ZDNET Australia successfully raised the same issue in a copyright case. Plus, Judge Clay Land seems to be engaging in a creative interpretation of the word "broadcasting" -- what if a reporter sends e-mail messages to his editor? Is a one-recipient message really a "broadcast?"

Then again, all an intrepid spectator in Judge Clay Land's courtroom apparently needs to do is write something inside the courtroom, and then step outside before pressing "send."

P.S. About a decade ago, when I was covering oral arguments before the D.C. Circuit for Wired, a court bureaucrat came up to me and accused me of using a wireless device in the courtroom. I had a Palm VII at the time, and previously had used it in the hallways during breaks. I didn't even have it on me that day, and it was unclear what court rules would be violated in any case, but the idea of live courtroom updates certainly annoyed someone. This seems backward: Live video and live-blogging should be the default, and restricted only with very good reason.

(Published by CBS News - November 9, 2009)

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