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Big Brother eyes media in court

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Sunday, June 3, 2012, 12:30 a.m.

HARRISBURG -- The rest of the United States is about to see how backward Pennsylvania is in running its courtrooms.

With the Jerry Sandusky trial about to get under way in Centre County, a misguided decorum order from Judge John M. Cleland tries to balance a Pennsylvania Supreme Court rule prohibiting instantaneous electronic transmissions from courtrooms with growing demand in the media to file stories via text message and Twitter.

The bottom line: A reporter could be jailed for accurately quoting someone.

Sandusky, the legendary former Penn State defensive coordinator, faces charges of molesting 10 young boys he allegedly had groomed for victimization after meeting them through the Second Mile charity he founded.

Jury selection begins this week. Sandusky maintains his innocence.

The result of the court's policy is a baffling concept that allows texting and tweeting but prohibits verbatim accounts from being transmitted from inside courtrooms.

Here's some hypothetical testimony.

A witness says, "The traffic light was red and he drove through."

You would only be able to tweet, "The witness said he ran the red light."

The reality is that there will probably be little policing of this policy.

But it smacks of Big Brother editing free and direct speech.

We have free speech except in the courtrooms of Pennsylvania?

It presents an opportunity, in theory, for the state Supreme Court, through its minions and/or Centre County officials, to police what is transmitted from the courtroom. Just that possibility makes me queasy.

The public is used to televised trials on cable TV, like the O.J. Simpson and Casey Anthony dramas. There's Court TV. Judge Judy. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court earlier this year allowed cable channel PCN to televise one of its court sessions.

And we in the media can't tweet an exact quote?

Now, a reporter covering the trial could transmit a verbatim quote from outside the courtroom. But a reporter would do so at the expense of missing other testimony and/or losing his or her seat.

News organizations are even paying for the wireless network that will carry the texts that may be monitored.

Here is why this is important.

In a murder trial, a witness says he saw the defendant walk toward the deceased, carrying a knife.

"He did it," the witness says.

"How do you know that?" the prosecutor asks.

"I saw him raise the knife and stab him again and again. Blood was dripping from his hand," the witness says.

It loses something in the translation to tweet, "The defendant stabbed him repeatedly."

Why would anyone concoct such a policy? Monitoring and limiting news coverage smacks of a totalitarian regime in Russia, China, Iran or Somalia.

Normally, objections to transmitting from courtrooms involve not wanting witnesses to see what other witnesses say. Or wanting to avoid jurors seeing what happened in a session the judge did not want the jury to see.

This isn't about that. It's about complying with a bass-ackwards rule against electronic transmissions from courtrooms. It is a halfway measure that fails.

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