The Pennsylvania court system took two steps forward when Dauphin County court officials allowed reporters to use their electronic devices to share former Penn State assistant football coach Mike McQueary’s testimony during a preliminary hearing to investigate the alleged sexual misconduct of Jerry Sandusky.
The momentum will come to a screeching halt and do an about face later this spring if state legislators decide in favor of a proposal that would prohibit the transmission of communications from courtrooms during court proceedings. The bill is a misguided effort to end the immediate public broadcasting of information — using cell-phones, computers and tablets -— and would send Pennsylvania back into the dark ages.
Pennsylvania has stifled immediate public access to criminal courtroom proceedings and already prohibits the use of video cameras in criminal court. So what may have looked like the end to what could be termed the dark ages may have simply been an illusion.
If the bill is approved, reporters found tweeting or otherwise sending information to public websites would be subject to having their device confiscated and to being held in contempt of court.
The committee that governs civil and court proceedings puts smart phones and tablets in the same category as broadcasting devices such as still cameras and video cameras, making them illegal in criminal court. The proposal, however, does not recommend similar prohibitions for civil court.
Proponents of the bill give three reasons for their position:
The possibility that jurors or witnesses will be biased by the broadcasts;
The inconsistency of the use of electronic devices in courtrooms across the state;
The disruption that cell phones, tablets and computers could cause in the courtroom.
Proponents are correct on at least one of their assertions. There is diversity across the state on how the “no broadcast” law is interpreted when it comes to new media devices. Centre, Dauphin and York County court officials have embraced the new technology and allow reporters to use iPads and other such devices in the courtroom. Westmoreland County courts do not.
The General Assembly has a lot on its plate this spring. There is no need for legislators to become mired in a decision that judges can easily address.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court should rule in favor of cell phones, computers and tablets in the courtroom, and let justices decide if and when to prohibit them if the devices become a distraction.