Web reporter shut out of trial after reader's comment

By Scott Lauck
The Daily Record Newswire
ST. LOUIS, MO — An online journalist remotely covering a major trial in Jackson County Circuit Court has been shut out of access to the proceedings after defense counsel objected to a reader’s comments posted on her website.

Jane Akre, the Florida-based editor of Mesh Medical Device News Desk, said she was trying to re-establish access to a privately maintained pool camera that provides a web feed of the trial. The case, which began earlier this month, involves claims against companies Boston Scientific and C. R. Bard that make transvaginal mesh products that plaintiffs allege have injured women in whom they were implanted. It’s one of a series of such suits around the country.

Akre covered the first two days of the trial via a pool camera arrangement through Courtroom View Network, a private company that provides subscriptions to video coverage of trials nationwide that are of interest to legal professionals. According to court records, CVN applied in November to serve as the pool camera for the trial, providing online access for a number of traditional and trade media outlets, including Akre’s.

According to a court filing made by CVN, attorneys for the defense complained to the court about comments left by online readers on Akre’s website and asked that CVN’s coverage be suspended. The company successfully argued that it should be allowed to continue. CVN, however, terminated Akre’s access to its feed.

It was unclear if she would be able to regain access. In an email on Monday, Valerie Hartman, a spokeswoman for the court, said Judge Robert Schieber decided that Courtroom View Network could remain in the courtroom but that they were to “discontinue access to the advocacy organization.”

Akre said she had been provided no official explanation for her removal and complained that, while CVN had an attorney, no one was representing her right to cover the trial. She argued that she hardly could have been able to disrupt the trial in any way, as she wasn’t there.

“This is wrong,” she said in an interview. “This is wrong on so many levels.”

The apparent issue was a comment posted Dec. 3 to one of Akre’s articles about the case. A reader who identified herself as Maria Garcia addressed the comment to Lori Cohen, a Greenberg Traurig attorney representing Bard at the trial. The commenter said Cohen was on the “wrong side of this issue.”

“You might as well be an abortion doctor which is the only thing in this world more evil than a being a defense lawyer for Bard,” the commenter wrote. The comment made reference to having sent an email directly to Cohen and said “she will actually write you back.”

Neither Cohen nor any of the other defense lawyers appeared to have filed written explanations of their concerns with the comment or Akre’s coverage. Cohen declined to comment to a reporter at the trial on Monday. David Siegel, CVN’s national editor, said in an email that the company “terminated [Akre’s] access in response to concerns from the court.” He otherwise declined to comment. CVN’s local attorney, Jean Maneke, a prominent media law attorney in Kansas City, also declined to comment.

In a written response to the defense’s complaint, filed with the court electronically on Sunday, Maneke argued that CVN could not be held responsible for content posted on a website over which it has no editorial control. She also noted that reader comments are common on news stories these days and that restricting media access to the trial would not prevent the public from commenting on the case.

“Trials are inherently public events, and attorneys representing large, publicly traded corporations at a multi-million dollar product liability trial involving medical devices alleged to have injured thousands of women nationwide can and should expect to be the subject of news media coverage and public discussion, whether in print on social media sites or around the local coffeehouse counter, which may not always be flattering or may be potentially hostile,” Maneke wrote.

She also argued that there was no evidence that any jurors had seen any of the posts and that while the comments in question were “inflammatory,” they weren’t actually threatening.

“Being called ‘evil,’ suggesting that a medical device be implanted on one of the attorneys, and other similar statements does not rise to the level of threatening immediate and real physical harm,” Maneke wrote.

Akre said she will edit some comments containing profanity but otherwise generally leaves them alone. She said she didn’t think the comment that apparently caused the stir rose to the level that it should have been removed. Akre said the comments on her site were disabled last Friday “as a courtesy for CVN” but have since been restored following her ouster from the company’s live feed.

It’s not clear to what extent the nature of Akre’s website played a role in her loss of access. Akre, a former television reporter, described her site as a legitimate independent media organization devoted to covering an important type of case that isn’t on most other media’s radar. She said she takes pains to cover both sides of the argument and has previously covered eight similar trials without complaint.

The experiences and viewpoints of injured patients, however, are very prominent on her site, which lists its mission as “putting a face on the mesh-injuries suffered by thousands of people globally.”

Although Akre was upset that CVN removed her from the video feed, she said ultimately her argument was not with the company.

“If I were them, I’d throw me under the bus too, to keep my access going,” she said. She added that it appeared that the defense was succeeding in keeping her from covering the trial.

“This isn’t just a private club that the defense gets to make a decision about what coverage they like and don’t like,” Akre said. “It’s ridiculous.”