U.K. Judge Allows Tweeting at Assange Hearing

The Twitter homepage appears on a screen in Washington on September 3, 2010. AFP PHOTO/Nicholas KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
Britain's judicial system is stepping into the 21st century; 140 characters at a time.

Freedom-of-information advocates on Wednesday hailed a judge's decision to allow journalists to communicate by Twitter from the bail hearing for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, saying it opens a door to texting and blogging live proceedings from Britain's traditionally communications-shy courts.

"It is a landmark," said David Allen Green, a keen tweeter who heads the media practice at London law firm Preiskel. "It's the first time I've ever known there to be express permission for electronic communications from the courtroom."

Steeped in tradition and resistant to quick change, British courts place strict restrictions on communications. Cameras and recording equipment are banned, phones are usually prohibited, and even court artists are barred from sketching in the courtroom; they must make notes and then go outside to draw.

In response to a request from a journalist, District Judge Howard Riddle announced at the start of Tuesday's hearing in London that he would allow tweeting as long as it was quiet and did not interfere with court business.

At least two journalists, Pennsylvania-born transparency campaigner Heather Brooke and Alexi Mostrous of The Times newspaper, proceeded to tweet the news that Riddle had granted Assange bail; and that Sweden had appealed that decision.

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Journalists have been surreptitiously e-mailing and texting from courtrooms for years; risking ejection if the judge objected; but this is thought to be the first time a judge has given explicit permission for courtroom tweeting. The Judicial Communications Office said it was not aware of a previous case.

U.S. federal courts tell jurors to avoid Twitter, Facebook and other social networking sites, but deciding whether journalists can tweet or blog from court has generally been left up to judges. Relatively few federal courts have embraced Twitter, although last year a federal judge in Kansas allowed a reporter to use the microblogging service to provide updates from a gang trial.

Brooke said she hoped the decision in the Assange case would encourage other British journalists to seek license to tweet.

"Hopefully it will mean more reporters will say, 'If it was allowed in this high-profile case, why don't you allow it here?"' she said.

"If people can follow a trial as it happens, I think it will get people interested in the legal system."

It remains to be seen, though, whether other judges will follow Riddle's lead.

Last month, the head of the judiciary, Lord Chief Justice Igor Judge, said there was no ban on the text-based transmission of material from court, but warned that courtroom tweets might increase chances of a mistrial if jurors read them.

"We have to remember that tweets stay on the Internet and to allow court-based tweeting is likely to increase the potential for prejudicial material regarding a defendant or a witness to become available on the Internet," he said in a speech.

A spokesman for the justice system said the issues raised by Judge "are under active consideration by senior judiciary."