Digitally Divided Courtrooms

Posted: January 17, 2017 by Nazim in Free Speech, Standing, Technology


Many courtrooms, including the Supreme Court of the United States, do not allow patrons to bring their digital devices into it, unless a specific exception is made for a particular piece of evidence in trial, or a judge simply doesn’t care. Often, this is a decision of the judge or judges that run that particular show, but sometimes, this prohibition has been implemented into law. One Michigander (Michigoose? Michigame? Michigonian? If you know, please let me know…) decided to take the matter to the US Supreme Court.

Despite the fact that I mainly use my internet connection to view pictures of cats, the devices, I’m told, have an immense utility for people trying to actually get shit done.  Further, the prohibition is not only a literal limitation of free speech, but it also has a chilling effect: the fact that it’s allowed in some courts and not others makes one liable to be fined if one wanders into the wrong courtroom with a cell phone in yo pocket. It has an easily verifiable chilling effect: I always wonder what to do with my cell phone before heading into a courthouse that I’m not familiar with.

The motivation for the prohibition is, in part, to insure that there are no distractions. They really don’t want you to be listening to our podcast or checking our facebook feed during trial, you criminals, you. But there’s also an element of old-timey thinking at play here: Some judges just don’t want your fancy talking picture boxes on their lawn. Honestly, I’ve occasionally persuaded a judge to allow me to use a digital device when it would help the case move along, but it’s a pretty rare thing, when the rule is enforced.

The Michiganese … the Michigander … the petitioner from Michigan argues (pdf warning) argues that the blanket rules, which often cover not just the courtroom, but the entire courthouse, run afoul of the First, Fifth and Fourtteenth Amendments. Astutely, he also points out that hearing the matter would resolve a split between different circuits. Some have acknowledged that this might be a true chill of free speech, while others point out that the restriction is not serious enough to cause actual harm, since people are free to take notes and sometimes record audio (which can be then put to video). As if I would ever take notes…

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