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Though they still grapple with tools like computers, cameras and microphones, courts have recently faced a new technological problem: what to do about Twitter. While a $12 million jury verdict in Arkansas is threatened by one of the juror's in-trial tweets, a federal court in Kansas recently made headlines for allowing a reporter to cover a trial with Twitter. These cases illustrate the good and the bad in any tool used for communicating what goes on in a trial, and why reporters twittering could be good, while juror twittering is bad.
Twitter is a social networking tool that allows users to post messages (or "tweets") to a website that displays updates which other can track. It is being used in more and more settings (you can tweet this blog entry, for example, with the buttons to the left). One setting posing potential problems, however, is the courtroom.
In Arkansas, the AP reports that Stoam Holdings and its owner Russell Wright have appealed a recent loss of a $12 million jury verdict in part based on the fact that a juror was allegedly tweeting during the trial. Stoam Holdings is purported to be one of many "Stoam" ventures by Mr. Wright used to bring in investment dollars. Two former investors alleged the operation to be a Ponzi scheme instead of legitimate investment in Wrights plans to manufacture "stoam," a material combining the insulating power of foam with the strength of steel.
Evidently, the case against Stoam prompted "Juror Johnathan" (Johnathan Powell of Fayetteville, Arkansas) to post twitter messages including, "oh and nobody buy Stoam. Its [sic] bad mojo and they'll probably cease to Exist, now that their wallet is 12m lighter." Bad mojo indeed. An attorney for Mr. Wright and Stoam Holdings have filed a motion seeking a new trial on the theory that Juror Johnathan consulted outside information and communicated with outside people about the trial.
Meanwhile, in Wichita, Kansas, last week U.S. District Judge Thomas J. Marten allowed a reporter to use Twitter to cover the trial of six alleged gang members. As noted by CBS News, the reporter, Ron Sylvester, a reporter from the Wichita Eagle, routinely uses Twitter in state courts, but being allowed to do so in federal court was rare. (His tweets can be found here.) The reason is that different courts have their own rules about what sorts of devices can be used during proceedings. Many federal courtrooms ban cameras, microphones and computers.
As CBS News' technology analyst Larry Magid argues, tools like Twitter should be allowed for reporters. If what happens in most trials is public information, tools that allow faster dissemination of this information should not be prohibited.
One might ask, then what wrong with Juror Jonathan's tweets? The answer: he was a juror. Just like courts have rules limiting what reporters can do during a trial, they have rules covering what jurors can do. The Washington County Circuit Court is no different. As the court's clerk told Northwest Arkansas Morning News, jurors are typically instructed not to communicate with outside people or consult outside information about the trial.
Time will tell if this will become the Twitter mistrial, but as if we needed a reminder, Juror Johnathan stands for the lesson: Just Say No to Juror Tweeting.