OpenCourt, our Knight Foundation-funded project devised to help make courts more transparent, is facing a legal challenge soon to be heard by a judge in the highest court in Massachusetts.

The central issue at stake is a First Amendment question of whether the court can order a news organization to redact material that has been presented to the public in an open courtroom.

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On July 8, WBUR, a public radio station, filed a response memo as well as a supplemental affidavit of our executive producer to the state’s Supreme Judicial Court.

The documents are the latest in a lengthy legal exchange between the Norfolk County District Attorney’s office and Quincy District Court judges over the redaction from the public record of the name of an underage alleged victim of sexual abuse which was accidentally blurted during a suspect’s dangerousness hearing two months ago.

Two-Day Delay

OpenCourt publicly live-streams daily video of the court’s First Session proceedings and posts the footage after an interim of two days. This delay is to allow reasonable room for redaction requests and to edit video in extraordinary circumstances, according to WBUR’s journalistic standards and as outlined in OpenCourt’s initial archiving guidelines.

We have not posted the May 27 archive episode at issue, pending the upcoming appeal hearing on Aug. 4 before a single justice of the Supreme Judicial Court, namely Justice Margot Botsford.

As mentioned in our filings, we would have removed from footage the name of the underage alleged victim and any information in court that would identify her, regardless of a court order. Such an order, however, represents a challenge to basic First Amendment press rights, specifically relating to issues of prior restraint. We are obligated as a press entity to clarify that our actions are voluntary and not mandated by the state.

Perhaps the most famous prior restraint case was the New York Times publishing of the Pentagon Papers in 1971. The leaked secret Department of Defense study extensively documented the U.S. government’s Vietnam War history. The federal government sought to suppress the information in the documents. However, the Times’ argument triumphed when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the press had a First Amendment right to publish information important to citizens’ understanding of its government’s policies.

Preventing Harm

In another case more relevant to ours, our lawyers write that in Nebraska Press Assn. v. Stuart in 1979:

The U.S. Supreme Court reasoned a prior restraint was not appropriate because there were no express findings that harm would occur upon publication. Moreover, there was no demonstrative evidence that other measures would be unable to prevent those harms … as Mr. Davidow’s affidavit sets forth, OpenCourt has taken other measures to prevent exactly the harm that concerns the Commonwealth.

We have every intention of protecting the latter, and over months have constructed guidelines with our Advisory Board, the public, and an open “working group” at the court. The guidelines are a living document.

The outcome of this case will set important guidance for the future operation of this project and others like it. More importantly, it could also significantly shape the legal lens through which the First Amendment is viewed when it comes to emerging technology in general, and specifically towards live Internet video-streaming.

Photo by of gavel by bloomsberries via Flickr.