A man in North Florida was found in contempt of court last week and sentenced to 6 months in jail for posting a live stream of a trial on Facebook Live. Jonathan Davis was sentenced to 6 months in jail in Gainesville, which is the maximum possible sentence for contempt of court. Prosecutors indicated that witnesses were already reluctant to testify in the murder case that was going on, and that the streaming may have been a tactic to discourage participation.
However, there are several problems with this charge, primarily the First Amendment. People have a protected right to publish, and there’s nothing that would indicate that the courtroom had been closed. Generally open court is open court, and is not only open to the public, it is open to being recorded and being disseminated. (For that matter, all court proceedings are recorded). Apparently there is an administrative order that people must get permission to record or broadcast, but it is unclear if Mr. Davis knew about that order. There’s even an issue whether that order is Unconstitutional, though there is clearly an interest in the court in making sure cameras do not disrupt the proceedings.
At first blush this case is going to have difficulty holding muster on appeal. Apparently, he lied to the judge about what he was doing, and if the judge couched his conviction on that, he might be upheld. The Gainesville Sun spoke to UF Law professor Kenneth Nunn, who astutely points out that a Direct Contempt proceeding may not have even been appropriate since the Bailiff’s alerted the judge Mr. Davis’ activity. The fact that Mr. Davis was streaming is not itself inherently disruptive. One can appreciate why the court and the prosecutor are concerned, but the proceedings in open court are always public and subject to publication.
The State was still able to obtain a conviction on the second-degree murder charges.