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Florida Supreme Court Goes Live on Facebook

Unlike the traditional approach of the federal courts, the Florida Supreme Court is opening its doors ever wider to the electronic media.

The state supreme court is broadcasting on Facebook, making it one of the first courts in the world to use social media for official live video. The inaugural program showcased Florida's annual pro bono awards, and will soon feature oral arguments.

It is a remarkable difference from federal courts, which have banned electronic coverage of court proceedings since 1946. It is not so surprising, however, because the Florida Supreme Court broke the mold long ago.

Broke the Mold

Florida was one of the first to permit television cameras in the courtroom.

"In the 1970s, Florida became the first state to allow broadcasts of its court cases at a time when every other court in the nation refused it," said Chief Justice Jorge Labarga. "This Court's experiment with transparency showed everyone a better way to balance First Amendment rights against the rights of people involved in a trial or appeal.

Labarga, born in Cuba and raised to the state supreme court in 2009, said social media will be the next step in the court's "highly successful model of openness."

The court opened to television news in 1975, then started producing its own gavel-to-gavel coverage in 1997. It is available today on the state cable network, The Florida Channel.

"Near Chaos"

The supreme court was tested when it aired arguments over the presidential election in 2000. If not for cameras, the court could not have handled the crush of public interest in Gore v. Harris.

Robert Waters, director of public information, said "huge crowds" of reporters, demonstrators and others were "near chaos" on the courthouse steps and adjoining streets. "If a riot had broken out, law enforcement never would have been able to contain it," he recalled.

Waters said the court's decision to install video cameras years earlier was "most crucial" because no broadcast cameras came in to disrupt the proceedings inside. Everything was already in place.

"With that, millions of viewers sat down to watch what would become only the second appellate oral argument in history to be broadcast live from start to finish on all the world's major networks," he said. The first occurred a few days earlier in the same courtroom.

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