Judge Bars the Internet From the Courtroom in a File-Sharing Case

So much for the long-awaited, fiercely contested Webcast in the recording industry’s hottest piracy case. A federal appellate judge ruled today that it cannot happen.

Charles Nesson, a Harvard Law School professor, had asked to Webcast a court hearing in the case against his client Joel Tenenbaum, a graduate student at Boston University whom Sony BMG Music Entertainment sued for copyright infringement. The presiding federal judge, Nancy Gertner, approved the request in January. But the recording industry, fearing that the hearing in U.S. District Court in Boston would become a circus, appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit.

Today, that court barred the Webcast, which was to be recorded by the Courtroom View Network and carried gavel to gavel by Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society. Judicial rules close federal courtrooms in Massachusetts to all forms of broadcasting, including Webcasting, Judge Bruce M. Selya wrote in the ruling.

The opinion pops what it calls Judge Gertner’s “free-floating bubble of discretion” to allow a Webcast. Cameras have an “intimidating effect” in courtrooms, Judge Selya quotes from federal judicial guidelines. Proceedings should be recorded for television or the Internet only in limited circumstances, the ruling says, such as to memorialize a ceremony or a naturalization.

Still, the court acknowledges there are “good arguments” for Webcasting. “We are also mindful,” the opinion says, “that emerging technologies eventually may change the way in which information — including information about court cases — historically has been imparted.” But rules are rules, it says.

The Recording Industry Association of America, predictably, was happy. “We are pleased with the First Circuit’s decision in this matter and now look forward to focusing on the underlying copyright-infringement claims in this case,” a spokeswoman wrote in an e-mail message.

Not so Team Joel. “We are disappointed by the First Circuit’s decision and maintain that Joel is being denied a constitutional right to a public trial in the age of the Internet,” says a statement on Mr. Tenenbaum’s Web site, Joel Fights Back. “We intend to explore every legal option available to Joel,” it says. “We encourage the public to weigh in and express its support of Internet in the courtroom with comments on our blog post.”

For now, people may express that support or interest by going to Boston, the ruling suggests.

“While the new technology characteristic of the Information Age may call for the replotting of some boundaries, the venerable right of members of the public to attend federal court proceedings is far removed from an imagined entitlement to view court proceedings remotely on a computer screen,” Judge Selya wrote. “There is no hint here that any portion of the proceedings will be closed to the public.”

At Mr. Tenenbaum’s next hearing, scheduled for April 30, Judge Gertner will consider arguments regarding his countersuit against the recording industry. —Sara Lipka

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