Jerry Sandusky Scandal

Pa. courts may ban tweets

As soon as Mike McQueary testified in court last month that he saw Jerry Sandusky sexually assault a boy in a Penn State locker room shower, reporters tweeted his words, giving the public an instant online news update.

Under a new state court proposal, that wouldn’t be allowed.

Court officials are considering an addition to the ban on the “transmission of communications” to include electronic devices like cellphones, computers, iPads or other tablets during court proceedings. It would amend the broadcasting rule that prohibits cameras in courtrooms and would essentially define tweeting — posting messages via the Twitter website — as broadcasting.

The rule change was proposed by a subcommittee of the two committees that govern criminal and civil court procedures in Pennsylvania. The subcommittee is recommending the change because judges across the state have interpreted the existing rules differently, with some allowing tweeting and others banning it, said court spokesman Art Heinz.

For instance, a Dauphin County judge allowed reporters to tweet and disseminate information in real time from the preliminary hearing on perjury charges brought against Penn State officials Tim Curley and Gary Schultz. The Centre Daily Times, and other news outlets, provided tweets and posted stories throughout the Dec. 16 hearing.

A Dauphin County trial judge also permitted tweeting during a public corruption trial.

But tweeting is forbidden in Westmoreland County courts, and is treated there as a violation of the broadcasting rule, according to the subcommittee.

The subcommittee, in a report earlier this month, said the concerns that prompted Pennsylvania courts to ban cameras in the courtroom still exist. They include concerns about broadcasts disrupting court proceedings, and the potential they have to bias jurors or influence witness testimony.

A “balance must be struck,” the subcommittee wrote, “between the public’s right to observe and be informed of court proceedings and the equally important rights of the participants in the proceedings as well as the orderly administration of justice.”

Under the proposal, those found violating the rule could have their cellphone or device confiscated or could be held in contempt of court.

The Pennsylvania Newspaper Association and Pennsylvania Association of Broadcasters oppose the rule change.

Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel with the PNA, said the rule is too broad and doesn’t take into account positive experiences of reporting in real time, such as the public being able to follow developments as they happened in the public corruption trial or the Curley and Schultz hearing.

“At the very least, there should be discretion for judges to control their own courtrooms,” she said.

Richard Wyckoff, president of the broadcasters association, said tweeting is an updated way to inform the public.

“I don’t think we caused any undue interruption to the (Curley/Schultz) proceeding, and none was noted at the time by the judge,” he said.

In Centre County, President Judge Thomas Kistler objects to the proposed rule change, saying the court shouldn’t slow the speed at which news can be reported.

He said information can still be communicated quickly, whether it’s tweeted from the courtroom or if a reporter writes a note, hands the paper to someone who runs outside the courthouse and phones it to an editor or broadcasts it live.

Kistler plans to send a letter with his comments to the subcommittee.

The proposal does not recommend a change to broadcasting or tweeting during civil proceedings, said Heinz, the court spokesman.

The subcommittee is accepting comments through April 6 at criminalrules@pacourts.us. It then will decide what, if any, changes to make to its proposal. The state Supreme Court will then decide whether to make the change.

Mike Dawson can be reached at 231-4616.

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