Social Media A ‘Necessary Evil’ In Courts

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The use of Twitter and Facebook for media updates and other information has been on the rise for a number of years, but for courthouse officials, social media has become an accepted challenge that is part of a court case.

But the live-tweeting of a case or the use of other social media to send out information after a case is resolved has been something Athens County has come to accept, according to Athens County Common Pleas Judge George McCarthy.

“I am very sensitive to (social media) when it comes to admonishing a jury that reading information about the case through social media during a trial can’t happen,” McCarthy said.

The problem comes when jurors use technology including social media to do their own investigation — for instance, looking up case law that may or may not apply to the case.

“I really try to stress that (jurors) are not to access sites to look up additional information or to try to find facts to use in the deliberating process,” McCarthy said.

In a survey conducted by the Conference of Court Public Information Officers, it was found that in 2014, 37 percent of United States courts had a social media policy for courtrooms compared to 29 percent one year ago.

There is no set policy in place in Athens County courts for the use of social media by those viewing cases. There is a policy in place involving the video recording of a court proceeding by media, but McCarthy said it’s not necessarily an issue for individuals to Tweet the status of a case or other information given in open court.

“As long as it’s not disruptive to the court, I’m not sure I see a problem with it,” McCarthy said.

Athens County Prosecutor Keller Blackburn said he believes there should be a standard jury instruction involving the use of social media for jurors, but sees the use of it otherwise as a “necessary evil.”

“The goal of my office is to make sure people have as much information as possible,” said Blackburn, who uses the prosecutor’s Facebook page to post news releases about concluded cases, but does not comment during a continuing case.

Unfortunately, though, Blackburn said some people in the court system find information from unofficial sources, which can become a problem in terms of a case.

“I think some restrictions (for jurors) are appropriate and probably should be a standard,” Blackburn said.