The Quincy District Court in Massachusetts streamed live video of court proceedings for the first time Monday, May 2, as part of a pilot that’s attempting to bring more transparency into the state’s judicial system.
The initiative, called “OpenCourt,” incorporates digital technology such as video streams and live broadcasts and makes the media available on the OpenCourt website. The Quincy District Court has set up a Wi-Fi network and a designated area for bloggers and citizen journalists to Tweet and use Facebook and other social media during court proceedings.
According to Massachusetts law , a judge can permit broadcasting of courtroom proceedings to the public. But there are limitations. According to the OpenCourt website, “16 states (including Massachusetts) prohibit coverage of important types of cases, or under relevant circumstances when witnesses object to broadcasting their testimony.”
The project is run by Boston public radio station WBUR in cooperation with the Quincy District Court and the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts. WBUR received a $250,000 grant by winning the Knight News Challenge, a competition through the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The project was originally named Order in the Court 2.0.
John Davidow, executive producer of the OpenCourt project, said that of the state’s three government branches — executive, legislative and judicial — transparency is least accessible for the judicial branch.
“The courts enjoy something they refer to as ‘practical obscurity’ — it’s done in public, but you have to go to the clerk’s office and get it, but it’s not that public,” Davidow said. “We’re attempting to break down some of the barriers of entry.”
But are court proceedings broadcast in a live video stream beneficial to everyone? Quincy Defense Attorney Richard Sweeney said he’s concerned about people who are accused and later dismissed of a crime. Since a dismissal typically isn’t shown in a first court session, he said, that video footage could negatively impact a person who’s had their case dismissed. Sometimes it’s simply a case of mistaken identity.
Video-stream access to live court proceedings also raises concerns over which cases should be broadcast and which shouldn’t.
While guidelines for use of the live video stream are outlined on the project’s website , Quincy District Court Judge Mark Coven said he has the authority to decide which cases aren’t broadcast on the live stream.
“We’ve had one or two cases where the victim of a domestic violence case did not want to proceed on camera, or did not want her name or the facts of the case being made public,” Coven said. “In that case, I exercised my discretion to turn off the camera for that limited purpose of that case.”
During the first two days of the project, Coven said the majority of the court cases were streamed on camera. There will be a few exceptions, like in instances of sexual assault, when the camera is turned off to prevent the victim from suffering public humiliation.
Davidow said there’s also concern that clients will want to talk to attorneys in private without the information being broadcast on video. To avoid issues such as disrupting client-attorney privilege, there are coverage “dead spots” in the courtroom so lawyers can have conversations with their clients confidentially.
The video stream’s guidelines will be continually discussed and re-examined as the project continues. Coven said some of the bigger issues are archiving the day’s proceedings, who has access to the archives and how those people will get access.
Davidow said the live video stream on the website won’t allow live commenting.
“We did not want to get into the Mystery Science Theater  conversation going on while court’s in session,” Davidow said. “So you can’t do that in court; you can’t have a running commentary when you’re sitting in court.”