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Public access offers advantages - April Avison

Debate has sparked in the legal community about whether California prosecutors were justified in setting up a Web site on the Michael Jackson case to alleviate a media frenzy.

Of course I am an advocate of making legal documents easily available to the media and the public. It makes a reporter's job much easier. But the advantages go beyond that.

According to Reuters, the "unusual" practice of setting up a Web site on the high-profile child molestation case has been attacked by those who believe it would "undermine the spirit of the law and court proceedings, creating even more of a circus-like atmosphere."

The Web site set up by the Santa Barbara district attorney's office, at www.sbscpressinfo.org, contains documents detailing the criminal charges against Jackson. The site asks users to fill out information about their media organization and requires a password for access.

The documents posted on the site are documents that a reporter could get by other means. But it saves much time and effort for the media as well as the DA's office if the information is readily available on the Internet, which also allows the information to be more quickly and efficiently dispersed to the public.

Besides making a reporter's job easier, it also frees up the district attorney's office to do its job rather than having to take constant calls from the media. It is particularly beneficial in a high-profile case like the Michael Jackson case because of the high public interest factor. According to Reuters, in other high-profile criminal cases, such as the Kobe Bryant rape and the upcoming Scott Peterson murder trial, "media-hounded prosecutors" have also put links on their Web sites to documents.

The argument made by William Weston, an associate dean and professor of the online Concord Law School, is that some people may be compelled to download the documents, editorialize and then spread them further around the Web.

"When you throw details out on the Internet, it diminishes the dignity of the court. It now puts the case in the court of public opinion," said Weston.

Well, I got news for ya, professor. These cases already are in the court of public opinion. And any self-respecting member of the media or legal community would get their documents directly from the source of information, not from a doctored document being passed around by e-mail.

The Internet can be a wonderful tool for sharing information and making public records accessible. Public records should be made public. The more difficult it is to obtain records, the more time-consuming and inefficient the process is for everyone involved.

April Avison is the city editor of the Daily Herald. Her column appears on Mondays. She can be reached at (770) 957-9161 or via e-mail at aavison@henryherald.com.