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The question of whether the media should be able to live blog from a federal court trial in Hawaii is again up for debate.
Civil Beat became the first news organization to live blog from a Hawaii federal court during the human trafficking trial of Alec and Mike Sou this summer. A Civil Beat reporter filed pool reports using a laptop and personal Internet connection directly from the courtroom. Before they were published on Civil Beat, those reports were shared by email with any news organization that asked to receive them. They were cited in numerous news accounts of the trial.
Now the question, raised by a request from Civil Beat, is whether a reporter or reporters should be able to live blog from the courtroom next year during what the federal government has called the largest human trafficking case in U.S. history.
Prosecutors allege that Global Horizons, a Los Angeles-based labor recruiting company, kept more than 600 Thai workers as indentured laborers on farms in Hawaii, Washington and other states.
Judge Susan Oki Mollway asked for comments about Civil Beat’s Aug. 12 request (a copy of which is included at the bottom of this report) to blog from the Global Horizons trial. Those who did comment have until Sept. 15 to comment on the comments that have been submitted, including a four-page document from the judge.
Two other news organizations — The Honolulu Star-Advertiser and the Hawaii Reporter — filed letters asking to be permitted to blog from the trial. Both said they didn’t anticipate gavel-to-gavel coverage. Neither raised the possibility of a pool reporter filing for all news organizations.
An attorney for one defendant, Pranee Tubchumpol, had no objections to Civil Beat’s request.
But the U.S. Attorney’s Office filed a six-page brief objecting to the request, claiming that live blogging constituted “broadcasting,” which is prohibited in federal court. It also expressed concern that the fair trial rights of the defendants could be violated because a witness could alter testimony knowing that what he or she said on the witness stand would be delivered to a worldwide audience.
The U.S. Attorney suggested that if the court permitted live blogging, it should bar reporters from reporting “direct statements of the witnesses.”
One of Hawaii’s leading First Amendment attorneys, Jeff Portnoy, told Civil Beat that would be unheard of.
“I have never heard ever of a court censoring accurate reporting from an open court proceeding,” he said. “There are unique circumstances, none of which apply here, where there might be an attempted order by a court to limit the identity of an undercover police officer. But as far as the content, that’s bizarre. Within my knowledge, I am not aware of any court that has permitted a reporter to watch proceedings and then censor the content.”
The U.S. Attorney also requested that all witnesses should “be admonished not to permit themselves to be exposed to internet blogging or any other reporting of the court proceedings until they are excused by the court.” It’s typical for witnesses to be told not to read or view reports on the trial where they are scheduled to testify.
Judge Mollway filed her own comments on Sept. 1. She rejected the U.S. Attorney’s argument that live blogging was broadcasting. She wrote: “Live blogging, even if it purports to quote statements made in court, is viewed by this court as a report, not as a judicial proceeding itself.” She pointed out that it had been permitted in federal trials in other circuits, including the District of Columbia.
Mollway also rejected the idea of prohibiting direct quotes. “Of course, reporters may not suggest that their quotes constitute the official record of judicial proceedings, but quotes in live blogging are not materially different from quotes in reports based on longhand notes.” Until Civil Beat was permitted to blog from the Sou trial, reporters in Hawaii had been unable to bring laptops into federal trials, so they’ve taken notes longhand.
However Mollway expressed frustration that news organizations didn’t provide her specific suggestions for how to handle their requests that “all news outlets be permitted to live blog from the courtroom.”
In an earlier letter to Star-Advertiser reporter Ken Kobayashi during the Sou trial, Mollway raised a number of questions about how live blogging should be handled.
“The news outlets may have concluded that the court’s concerns did not matter to them,” she wrote. “While the court, of course, can understand that view, the court is unlikely to allow multiple live blogging if it cannot adequately address its concerns. It had been the court’s hope that any attempt by the court to fashion a system that addressed its concerns while providing more access would be assisted by specific suggestions from those seeking more access.”
Kobayashi, in his letter commenting on Civil Beat’s request, suggested that the judge “consider letting a newly formed bench-media committee look into the matter and make a recommendation,” a proposal Mollway essentially rejected.
Civil Beat is preparing a response to all the comments that will include suggestions for how to handle the issues raised by live blogging.
Here are some of the documents filed in federal court regarding this matter:
U.S. Attorney for District of Hawaii
Chief Judge Susan Oki Mollway
Letter from Judge Mollway to Star-Advertiser
Defense Attorney for Pranee Tubchumpol
Honolulu Star-Advertiser reporter Ken Kobayashi
Hawaii Reporter Editor Malia Zimmerman
Civil Beat request to live blog Global Horizons trial