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New Jury Instructions Strengthen Social Media Cautions

A federal Judiciary committee has issued a new set of model jury instructions (pdf) that federal judges may use to deter jurors from using social media to research or communicate about cases.

The new instructions, which update and expand on a similar version issued in 2012, were sent to federal judges on Sept. 1.

The new model instructions caution jurors about the many ways social media can undermine a jury’s ability to deliver an impartial verdict. The instructions suggest that reminders about social media restrictions be given throughout the trial, instead of only at its beginning and end, as was recommended in the 2012 version. 

“We believe the new language should more effectively guard potential and serving jurors against improper influence,” said Judge Audrey G. Fleissig, chair of the Committee on Court Administration and Case Management. 

The 2012 model instructions were drafted when fewer social media platforms existed, and when social media was less universally present in most jurors’ lives.

Jurors today are more likely to see popup social media notifications on their phones and computers, making them more vulnerable to unintentionally hearing about a trial or a sensitive legal issue. And social media has been used with greater sophistication to communicate disinformation and influence public opinion. Taken together, these changes make it challenging for courts to ensure that jury members render their verdicts based only on what happens in the courtroom, as is required.

“Persons, entities, and even foreign governments may seek to manipulate your opinions, or your impartiality during deliberations,” the new model instructions note.  “While accessing your email, social media, or the internet, through no fault of your own, you might see popups containing information about this case or the matters, legal principles, individuals or other entities involved in this case. Please be aware of this possibility.”

In a sign of how rapidly social media has changed in eight years, the 2012 model instructions reference smart phone services and social media spaces that have dramatically declined in popularity or even disappeared.

As with the 2012 instructions, jurors will continue to be cautioned not to communicate with anyone about the case until it has concluded, either in conversation or in the form of emails or blog or social media posts.

And jurors will still be emphatically warned against doing any independent research on matters relevant to a case.

“The Sixth Amendment of our Constitution guarantees a trial by an impartial jury,” Fleissig said. “Jurors must decide a case solely on the evidence and law presented to them in the courtroom. In a world where social media can overwhelm us with information and misinformation, it’s important to remind jurors again and again not to be distracted from their civic duty.”