Section 1-5(6) of the Juvenile Court Act of 1987, 705 ILCS 405/1-5(6), provides, in pertinent part, "The general public except for the news media and the crime victim... shall be excluded from any hearing and, except for the persons specified in this Section only persons, including representatives of agencies and associations, who in the opinion of the court have a direct interest in the case or in the work of the court shall be admitted to the hearing."
Section 1-8(C) of the Act provides, "Except as otherwise provided in this subsection (C), juvenile court records shall not be made available to the general public but may be inspected by representatives of agencies, associations and news media or other properly interested persons by general or special order of the court."
I looked up these statutes this evening after reading the story of Elaine Hopkins, a 30 year veteran of the Peoria Journal Star, but the proprietor now of her own blog that she calls PeoriaStory.com.
I read the story in the July 30 edition of the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin (access limited to subscribers) -- but a Downstate television station, WHOI, has done a story about this as has Rich Miller, of the Capitol Fax Blog. You can read Ms. Hopkins' own account of the story here.
In her own account, Ms. Hopkins links to this online article by Christopher B. Daly, apparently a professor of journalism at Boston University. His bottom line? "Anyone who engages in reporting -- whether for newspapers, magazines, radio, television, or blogs -- deserves equal protection under those laws, whether the news is delivered with a quill pen or a computer."
But in the Law Bulletin article, 10th Judicial Circuit Chief Judge Richard E. Grawey, defended the decision of Associate Judge Albert L. Purham, Jr. to bar Hopkins, stating, "Since any member of the public could become a blogger, I think it gives the potential for exploding the distinction between news media and the public.... There's a potential for every member of the public to become a blogger and making the exception vanish."
Here is a situation where both sides have a valid point: Bloggers can be "serious journalists" -- that is, they can report factually and accurately, quoting real sources and documents -- and they can also write about their cat's dandruff. Sometimes in the same day. But, then, "real" newspapers have news pages... and fluffy features pages too. On the other hand, anyone can start up a blog in about 10 minutes.
Without taking sides in the dispute, I am inclined to sympathize with a judge who has an obligation to keep the proceedings largely confidential... as the statutes set out above require. On the other hand, looking at this particular case, Ms. Hopkins was a veteran reporter and apparently well known in the courthouse. Her publishing her stories in a blog should not, in and of itself, be disqualifying.
In the Law Bulletin article, Judge Grawey is also quoted as saying, "Bloggers don't have editors. They don't have a reputation of a news institution to uphold. There's no fear of losing your job if you're incompetent." Well, Sam Zell is about to complete his purchase of the Chicago Tribune. He'll take the company private in the transaction. Would that mean that he could send a reporter to cover a juvenile proceeding... but would be barred himself?
Fortunately, reporters are not licensed in the United States. On the other hand, could legislation be devised to allow interested persons to register with the court to cover juvenile proceedings -- however they publish their stories? How could such a scheme be worked out without infringing on real press freedom? Would joining the National Writers Union, and obtaining press credentials from the NWU, as Rich Miller suggests, be sufficient? That may be worth watching, as this PeoriaStory unfolds. Meanwhile, the General Assembly is a bit busy with the budget these days... but this may become an issue in a future session....
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