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Courthouse blackout; Ban on devices too harsh.


Courtrooms are meant to be places where justice is dispensed in an atmosphere that is serious and respectful. We fully support longstanding prohibitions on reading materials and other distractions - including electronic devices - among those witnessing the daily business of arraignments and trials.

But a coming ban on cellphones and other electronic devices throughout the Worcester Trial Court complex goes too far. It creates a major inconvenience and raises concerns about privacy.

The ban does exempt, as it must, court employees, lawyers, and law enforcement officers. It also exempts jurors, who have no choice but to report to the courthouse and often wait for long periods of time. Reporters who register with the court are also exempted, since they presumably need their computers or other devices for their work.

But many others also have a legitimate need to have a cellphone or other device near to hand when they enter the courthouse. Social workers, other government employees, clergy, and relatives of the accused or a victim have a need to visit the courthouse. All such people have a legitimate need to communicate, and electronic devices have become the essential means of doing so in the modern world.

It is simply overkill to put each and every visitor through yet another layer of bureaucracy simply because one person acted inappropriately when reminded of the rules of the court.

The ban also contains an exemption for citizen journalists, provided they, like newspaper, radio or TV reporters, register with the court.

But in this age of websites and bloggers, most anyone can claim to be a citizen journalist. And whether writing for a paper or website or simply conducting research or studying how our judicial system works, ordinary citizens should be encouraged to attend court proceedings. Court employees should not be in the business of deciding who qualifies and who does not, provided observers are attentive to the business of the court and create no distraction.

Protecting personal property and privacy are also concerns. While electronic devices will be held in a secure area, with video surveillance, and receipts given to owners, many are understandably reluctant to entrust an expensive phone or computer to anyone. There is no guarantee such property won't be damaged, and a single unscrupulous or careless employee could compromise, corrupt or steal sensitive personal data.

We understand the intent behind the ban, but if members of the public create distractions or impede the operations of the court by misusing a cellphone or computer, court officials surely could exercise their authority and discretion by curbing such behavior or removing the offender from the courthouse altogether.

Discreet use of electronic media in hallways or waiting areas is not a problem, but simply how people work and communicate today. The ban is likely to create more trouble than it prevents. We urge court officials to reconsider.
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Title Annotation:EDITORIAL
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Apr 11, 2012
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