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Mar 22, 2015

Florida Court's New Rule Limits New Media Access

Perhaps taking its cue from the U.S. Supreme Court, which issued press credential rules which limit access by the premier blog covering the court, a judicial district in Florida has issued new rules that essentially bar bloggers and other new media journalists from covering trials in those courts.

Chief Judge Mark Mahon of Florida's 4th Judicial Circuit, based in Jacksonville and covering Duval, Clay and Nassau counties, issued an administrative order on March 5 which provides rules for media access to courtrooms by both "traditional print and broadcast communication channels, such as radio and television, newspapers and magazines, through which news and information is disseminated that reach or influence people widely," and "the next generation of digital, computerized or networked information and communication technologies not directly associated with traditional print and/or broadcast media entities."

While the inclusion of both types of media appears to make the order forward-looking, the definition of the "next generation" of media is problematic. The order defines them as
an online entity which was a previously established, independent site that contains regularly updated original news content above and beyond links, forums, trouble-shooting tips and reader contributions; said content is thoroughly reviewed by an independent editor before publication; has certifiable data demonstrating "unique" and "direct" monthly visits and for which there has been original content generated and published by the applying employee and the entity that has previously covered the judicial branch for the six months immediately prior to requesting a Media Authorization Card.
The last sentence, requiring that an online news source cover the courts for six months before requesting access, presents a classic dilemma: how do you cover the courts in order to obtain a credential, when you need the credential to cover the courts?

The earlier provisions have their own problems. Online news sources take various forms, from one-person blogs to online operations of legacy news organizations. The smaller operations in particular may have problems meeting the order's requirements. What about community bloggers? Or freelancers for online news outlets?

But even large, established news organizations may have issues. Does the requirement that content be "thoroughly reviewed by an independent editor before publication" mean that journalists cannot live blog or Tweet from a court proceeding? How is a new reporter or news source supposed to show "certifiable data demonstrating 'unique' and 'direct' monthly visits?" What, for that matter, is "certifiable data?"

Courts have had a long, complicated history with cameras in courtrooms, and more recently with electronic devices such as laptops and cellphones. They have dealt with new devices and capabilities in various ways, ranging from banning them outright to actually explictly allowing -- and thus implicity encouraging -- texting and tweeting. Some even offer free public wifi that facilitates this.

Like different rules on use of electronic devices by the public and the media, different access and credentialing rules for old and new media is short-sighted and (perhaps ironically) archaic. Instead, courts must fashion their media rules to accommodate all forms of media, including both more established, legacy media and new types of media entities.

The courts rightly pride themselves on their openness to the public. But court administrators must not adopt rules that unreasonably limit access by the public's proxies, the media, whatever form they may take.

h/t Florida Times Union (jacksonville.com)

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