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Prop 8 On Trial: Justice and Equality in the Age of the Internet

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History is being made in California this month, as hundreds of thousands of lesbians and gay men, their friends, families and allies around the world crowd into what has become a virtual courtroom.

I have been sitting in the courtroom from the opening arguments, but I was expecting to simply observe, absorb and comment. Instead, I am in the overflow room at the Courthouse -- watching what would have been seen on YouTube by millions -- and recording one of the key moments in gay civil rights history on the Courage Campaign Institute's "Prop 8 Trial Tracker" web site that is providing wall-to-wall coverage of the trial.

While our Constitution guarantees access to a fair and open trial, the modern definition of access is being rapidly expanded as a federal court in San Francisco hears a challenge to Proposition 8, the California initiative that stripped equal marriage rights from the state's lesbian and gay families in 2008.

The Internet is giving the world the chance to experience this trial in real time, something our Supreme Court did not want to allow via television. From Courage's Trial Tracker site to Karen Ocamb's LGBT.POV, FireDogLake, Pam's House Blend and many other sites, the news about the trial is spreading like wildfire online.

The online rush to witness equal rights being put on trial began when U.S. District Court Judge Vaughn Walker asked for public comment on his decision to allow video access to the proceedings. The response was overwhelmingly in favor of televising the trial, with more than 138,000 supportive online petition signatures generated in just three days by the Courage Campaign Institute and CREDO Action, compared to a mere 32 for the opposition. This is a testament to the marriage equality movement's desire to be out and open, while the opposition seeks to hide -- ironically -- in its own closet of homophobia.

Judge Walker's decision to allow public video access was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court. But in his dissenting opinion to the majority's 5-4 decision banning video from the trial, Justice Stephen Breyer twice cited the 138,248 online signatures submitted on paper -- making clear that the public had weighed in and that the nation's interests would be best served if the trial was available for public participation.

What is remarkable is that this may be the first time an online organizing campaign of this nature has been cited in a Supreme Court decision.

Despite the decision, the public demand to witness our rights on trial could not be unplugged. The Prop8TrialTracker.com live blog -- which Courage set up using a mobile broadband device in the courtroom overflow area -- has generated nearly 1 million views and more than 7,000 comments since launching on January 11.

We initially set up this trial-tracking web site to allow the public to "view" the trial when video access was in limbo. Now, our live blog is sparking a powerful public catharsis across the nation, with readers offering their own testimony to the personal consequences of being denied the right and responsibility of marriage. Just as the plaintiffs' stories are opening hearts and minds, thousands of people are coming out and telling their stories online, with powerful effect.

This window to justice, once thrown open, is now offering the entire nation the chance to participate in the trial. Many hundreds of comments are being left every day on our blog, with readers amplifying the expert testimony being given in the courtroom with their own responses as well as forming a unique community of "Trial Trackers" in the threads.

We obviously hope Judge Walker reads this testimony for justice and equality being offered every day by the millions who cannot be present at the trial.

At its core, our system of justice also allows us "our day in court" -- the power to be heard and to confront our accusers. That's what is happening right now in California. Millions of people have the chance to be heard as their rights -- and indeed basic American values of justice and fair treatment for all -- are on trial.

They are speaking out because they believe that it is much harder to deny a right in the abstract than it is in the flesh. It is one thing to say that marriage should be between a man and a woman. It is something different, and much more difficult, to stand before loving, committed same-sex couples and tell them they are less equal than straight couples.

This is, I believe, one of the primary reasons the anti-gay side sees its witness list shrinking by the minute. Truth thrives when you shine a light on it and lies, misinformation and bigotry shrink and slink away when exposed.

We can ask ourselves what the outcome may have been in other trials if only there was this level of participation, but can you imagine?

During the legal proceedings leading up to the Proposition 8 trial, much was made of the power of the Internet to allow Californians to watch justice at work. While those were good arguments, we are discovering that perhaps the most important use of the Internet is the power it gives both the judiciary and the public to see how this one case effects so many Americans in our everyday lives.