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MICHAEL MORRISSEY

DA SINGLES OUT OPENCOURTIN BID TO CENSOR COVERAGE

A suspect's lawyer blurts out the name of a 15-year-old girl whom prosecutors say was forced into prostitution. Several reporters who are covering the case hear the name. Even though they have the right to use it under the First Amendment, it's understood that they won't — it would be unethical journalistically, it would compromise the criminal case, and it would traumatize the alleged victim.

Despite all that, the district attorney's office goes to court to prevent one news organization's video from being posted online, even though the folks who run that organization say they have no intention of uploading it until the identifying information has been removed.

In essence, that's what Norfolk County District Attorney Michael Morrissey did with regard to OpenCourt (opencourt.us), an innovative online news project affiliated with WBUR Radio (90.9 FM). Among other things, OpenCourt livestreams all proceedings from Quincy District Court. Morrissey's concern was understandable in the abstract. Yet if he wasn't going to go to court to take the clearly unconstitutional step of demanding that newspaper and television journalists who were there refrain from using the name (not that they would have anyway), why did he think OpenCourt would do something so unethical?

"This is really taking reporting that is done every day and then trying to take the editorial aspects away from journalists and put them in the hands of the state to decide what is published and what is not," said John Davidow, WBUR's executive editor for new media and the head of OpenCourt, in an interview with the Boston Globe.

Fortunately, the state's Supreme Judicial Court agreed, ruling in March that any order restricting OpenCourt's ability to publish existing audio and video recordings of court room proceedings — by 'streaming live' over the Internet, publicly archiving on the Web site, or otherwise — "represents a form of prior restraint on the freedoms of the press and speech protected by the First Amendment," as well as the state constitution.

No one wants to see the names of alleged 15-year-old sex-crime victims in the paper, on television, or online. Fortunately, the SJC recognized that a free press, acting responsibly, is vastly preferable to government-ordered censorship.

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