Important 1st Amendment Decision from SJC: Commonwealth v. Barnes

Massachusetts Criminal Procedure . First Amendment to the United States Constitution.  The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court issued an opinion today in case number SJC11035.  The case involved three petitions for relief under Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 211, section 3.  The lead case is Commonwealth v. Barnes.  All of these petitions arose from proceedings in the Quincy District Court and involved the OpenCourt Project, which streamed the District Court proceedings on broadcasts and also posted online archives of District Court proceedings.

The Supreme Judicial Court frst addressed the nature of the First Amendment as it pertains to criminal trials and hearings.  The First Amendment entitles the press and the public to be present at criminal proceedings.  While the Constitution guarantees the right to be present, it does not guarantee the right to bring cameras into the court room or make audio or video recordings.  Courts have the power to allow or not allow cameras in the court room, or to establish rules on the recording of proceedings by the media.  Once a court chooses to allow video recording in the court room though, the First Amendment protects the dissemination of the recording.

Because the First Amendment applies to the recordings, the Court addressed whether the doctrine of "prior restraint" applies to the orders of the District Court which, among other things, ordered the redaction of a minor victim's name from a video and audio recording that was already in the Open Court program's possession.  The three District Court orders at issue involved the publication of of video recordings of three different proceedings:  a probable cause hearing, a dangerousness hearing, and an arraignment.   Two of these involved the publication of videos that contained the names of minor victims of crimes.  A "prior restraint" under First Amendment analysis is an order that "... forbids certain communications when issued in advance of the time that such communications are to occur".  Alexander v. United States, 509 U.S. 544 (1993).

The Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the District Court orders that prohibited the publication of the minors' names were an unconstitutional prior restraint that violated the First Amendment.  The oral arguments of this case can be found at:


Attorney Mark Stevens

Law Offices of Mark Stevens
5 Manor Parkway
Salem, NH 03079

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