Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Open Court

By Heidi Hiatt

Those who’ve read my article on police records might be interested to check out an experiment in Massachusetts called OpenCourt. Here’s an explanation of it from their site:

OpenCourt is an experimental project run by WBUR, Boston’s NPR news station, that uses digital technology to make Quincy District Court more accessible to the public. Anyone with an internet connection will be able to see and hear what goes on in court.

I have no doubt that this concept will spread and it will be deemed a success by open government advocates. On the surface, it sounds like a decent use of modern technology that will contribute to government transparency.

Yes, I have some questions about and issues with this. I’m already on the record as a proponent of open government, but not at the expense of people’s privacy. Yes, I’ve heard it all, “there is no right to privacy,” “the Internet killed privacy,” and so on. But if we weren’t concerned about privacy, then government agencies wouldn’t be advising people to take steps against identity theft or try to keep crime victims and children safe.

My first concern is that victims and witnesses may have to go before a camera. It is true that the public can already sit in on many courtroom proceedings. But this is different because not only does it capture images and intimate details of proceedings, but it puts it on the world wide web. We bloggers know– once on the web, always on the web.

Second, this is what I mean about the distinction being victims and suspects being blurred. Subjecting both to video that goes on the web means they are being treated equally. Are projects like this going to blur out a victim’s likeness or distort their voice? Probably not, given that these broadcasts are streaming live.
While written court records are very open, allowing anyone access to video of victims is disturbing. The way our justice system handles records can victimize innocent parties a second or third time. Not only does a victim, witness, or complainant have to come forward a first time to report a crime or be interviewed, they may be investigated, have to testify against the suspect, seek a protection order against them, or have personal details of their lives released openly.

Now they have to be on TV? I looked around the OpenCourt site to determine if they show victims in their broadcasts, but so far am not finding anything that says they don’t. It seems wrong that these men, women, and children have gone through so much already, and then their anguish, anger, tears, confusion, or fear might be broadcast live. I can just imagine hungry sociopaths searching for their next victims via court TV.

My third concern is for juveniles. It appears that this particular court is not broadcasting cases involving juveniles. That is a sound decision, because many states protect juvenile records and generally don’t release images of kids. As the live streaming practice spreads, however, yet another class of formerly protected parties in the justice system may find their likeness and records publicly disclosed.

Fourth, this could be a safety risk for law enforcement personnel. Some cops I know are not okay with pictures of themselves being on the Internet. Some police departments shield digital images of their officers from public disclosure in the interest of their safety. I can’t speak for the cops in my life, but I’m confident that some of them wouldn’t be too fond of this.

Finally, projects like this make it seem like the traditional divide between having open records to police the conduct of government rather than the conduct of the individual is gone. This is a media-sponsored project, and the media is often heavily involved in open government advocacy. While I’m a firm believer in a free press, that does not mean that everybody’s business should be aired without restraint all of the time. I also remind myself that most media outlets are for-profit businesses.

This level of transparency may be useful in holding public officials accountable. But it can be detrimental to other participants in criminal and civil cases. It’s easy to say, “oh yeah! Now those judges can’t get away with anything!” or “it’s pretty cool to be watching live court from home.” However, putting yourself in the shoes of the people who may not want to be on TV and feeling what they feel might give you a very different perspective.

There has to be a balance between the public’s right to know and people’s personal information. But in the digital age, public records seem to be becoming a free-for-all in which nothing seems sacred anymore and everybody wants to watch. It will be interesting to see how this project deals with such issues.

Privacy is the right to be alone—the most comprehensive of rights, and the right most valued by civilized man. –Louis D. Brandeis

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