Listening to White Supremacy on Trial: Audio Remote Access and the Limits of Open Justice

In 2022, the trial took place of Elizabeth Sines v. Jason Kessler, in a United States District Court in Virginia. The defendants represented a who’s who of white supremacists, neo-Nazis and Christian nationalists in the US, charged with inflicting violence and intimidation during a deadly rally in 2017. While U.S. district courts do not allow cameras to broadcast their proceedings, the public could follow the trial through an audio remote call-in line. For both the plaintiffs and the defendants, the case – and the call-in line – were means to capture public attention and shape the larger narrative.

Sines v. Kessler highlights key questions around open justice – or the access that members of the public have to judicial proceedings – and to what happens when this access is mediated through sound. Technologies such as teleconferencing and audio livestreaming have generated debates and new practices around public access to trials. How is legal access premised on listening? What constitutes a fair and public trial? And, as Sines v. Kessler leads us to ask, what does it mean – for the law and for ordinary people – to listen in the context of white supremacy and hate? In this talk, I analyze remote listening to consider how both the form and the content of audio access to hate complicate debates around open justice. As I show, remote audio access at times raises difficult questions about who is listening and who we are listening to.