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Cleveland-area judge uses TikTok to livestream hearings, provide insight on legal system

Judge William Dawson has nearly 330k followers
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Posted at 9:20 AM, Aug 25, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-25 12:05:42-04

EAST CLEVELAND, Ohio — William Dawson has sat on the bench of East Cleveland's Municipal Courthouse for nine years. In those years, he said he says he's seen it all.

"We see everything from your standard traffic violations up to felonies," Dawson said. "I see the individuals. I set bonds. I get a chance to talk with them for a moment. I pretty much see everything."

Equipped with a gavel and a robe, at first glance, he's a typical judge. But there's also another tool in his courtroom he uses to uphold law and order — a phone.

"Maybe the same mistakes that the person in front of me has made, someone else has made in California or another country," he said. "Through social media, I can reach even more people and let them know that 'hey, the justice system can work for you. It doesn't always have to be negative.'"

Dawson broadcasts many of his hearings live on TikTok.

"TikTok is all about fun dances and challenges, and I'm totally different, but this is an audience that wants to see this positive information," he said.

He started creating content on the app in February, and since then, has amassed nearly 330,000 followers and more than 1 million likes.

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"My goal has always been to change the narrative of justice in our country, and part of that, I like to show correction with compassion," Dawson said.

Every week, he posts a segment called "Ask Judge Dawson," where his followers will send in their own questions about the legal system.

"I want to help people know about this justice system in a way that they can avoid negativity," he said.

In some videos, he's reacting to other viral videos. In one such video, he encourages followers to avoid resisting arrest, encouraging them to "take your ticket, take your court date" and not to "make it worse by resisting."

In other videos, he simply has fun and dances.

"I think it's important to show people that we are people, too, even though when I put on the robe, I am very serious; I'm going to call it how I'm supposed to call it as a judge," Dawson said. "But I'm also a father, I'm a husband, and I like to have fun, too."

He also showcases bits and pieces of actual court hearings with real-life defendants when those proceedings are open to the public, and it's legal to broadcast them.

He said it's about educating that people can break the cycle, that a mistake isn't the end of their life, but it can be the beginning of a new start.

In one video, he speaks to a defendant who is accused of shooting another person, and who had made several court appearances in the past year.

"I have you sitting here looking at two to eight years in prison. They're alleging you shot somebody," Dawson tells the defendant in the video. "You're 22. At some point, whether it's a year from now or whatever, you can shed that old image."

Dawson noted that he never puts any defendants in his courtroom on camera or his TikTok page.

He said while it's his job to serve, it's his personal oath to make sure he's serving as many people as he can, including sharing his wisdom any way he can.

"As long as I'm blessed to be a judge, I will use every moment on that bench to educate in some way," Dawson said.

This story was originally published by Jessi Schultz on Scripps station WEWS in Cleveland.