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News-Sentinel.com Your Town. Your Voice.
Opening Arguments

Court is in session

WOWO News Director Dave Wheaton had his cell phone confiscated when he took it into Judge Fran Gull's Allen Superior Courtroom and now faces a contempt citation. News-Sentinel columnist Kevin Leininger thinks the solution is to grant a new-technology exemption for "legitimate" journalists -- a word that's used more than once -- that is not enjoyed by the general public:

I have no problem with policy as it applies to the general public. As Superior Court Executive Jerry Noble said, its original intent – to protect jurors, witnesses and others from intimidation and harm through the use of cell-phone photography – remains necessary. But why should that prevent Wheaton and other legitimate journalists from using technology to type notes (as Wheaton said he was doing that day) or to send stories to the Internet? Timeliness, after all, determines whether something is news or not. (And TV cameras are already allowed in the halls outside the courtrooms, where many of the same people supposedly protected by the current policy can easily be photographed.)

I hate to disagree with my former editorial page colleague, but, well, I disagree with my former editorial page colleague, for the same reasons I disagree with U.S. Rep. and gubernatorial candidate Mike Pence on the wisdom of a shield law for journalists:

1. How can the press presume to be a watchdog of the government if it agrees to let government decide who is and who is not a member of the "legitimate" press.

2. In a era of growing mistrust of the "mainstream" or "legacy" media or whatever else you want to call us, it's dangerous to ask for privileges that set us apart from the general public that already thinks much of what we report is in furtherance of our own agenda rather than the public's interest.

3. With those referenced "new technologies" giving everyone instant access to everyone in the world with a cell phone or Internet connection, who's to say who's a journalist and who is not these days? What makes my interest in collecting and disseminating information more legitimate than someone doing a blog on his own instead of for a company willing to sign a paycheck for me?

To be fair to Kevin, he did raise the "Who's a journalist?" issue, but I think he gave it short shrift. The First Amendment does not serve a protected class defined as professional journalists. The rights to freedom of speech and freedom of the press spelled out there belong to all Americans. Those of us in the news business should be fighting to protect the rights of citizenship as universal, not claiming them as our exclusive property.

And I don't mean to make light of legitimate concerns about protecting courtroom participants from intimidation and harm. But those are issues better addressed individually as specific circumstaces dictate rather than with a blanket policy that violates the public's right to know and a defendant's right to a public trial by a jury of his peers.

Kevin mentions that one of the characteristics of the new technologies is speed. Information can be dispersed immediately that once took hours or days or longer to get out. But another is accuracy. We've always been able, with an exception or two, to attend trials. But those of us who could not go  had to depend on word of mouth or the reporting of professionals who may or may not have been competent and disinterested. Now we have the technology to quickly get into people's hands an accurate and complete account of what goes on. We might not come to any better conclusions, but at least our understanding will be based on the best evidence available.


Christopher Swing
Wed, 05/30/2012 - 3:01am

Surprisingly, we find something we can agree on.

Unsurprisingly, Leininger has absolutely no problem having a special set of rules for himself that don't apply to anyone else.

One thing:

"And I don't mean to make light of legitimate concerns about protecting courtroom participants from intimidation and harm."

I'll make light of it, because I have yet to see any evidence that having a picture taken is really intimidation. Or that the measures taken against it aren't more than laughable security theater. If you can see a witness in a courtroom, it's not like you can be ordered to not remember what they look like so you can't take their picture outside.

Perhaps what we need to do is start taking pictures of people coming and going from the courthouse and posting them to the internet. Just to make a point, of course.