Brief Fact Summary. Members of the media sought access to a courtroom during a murder trial.
Synopsis of Rule of Law. “[T]he right to attend criminal trials is implicit in the guarantees of the First Amendment; without the freedom to attend such trials, which people have exercised for centuries, important aspects of freedom of speech and ‘of the press could be eviscerated.’ ”
The Appellants sought a hearing to vacate the closure order. The trial judge scheduled a hearing the next day, but ruled the hearing was part of trial and cleared the courtroom again. The trial court denied the motion to vacate and ordered the trial to continue “with the press and public excluded.” The trial court found Stevenson not guilty of murder.
The trial court then granted “appellants’ motion to intervene nunc pro tunc in the Stevenson case. Appellants then petitioned the Virginia Supreme Court for writs of mandamus and prohibition and filed an appeal from the trial court’s closure order.” Thereafter, “the Virginia Supreme Court dismissed the mandamus and prohibition petitions and, finding no reversible error, denied the petition for appeal.”
Issue. “[W]hether a criminal trial itself may be closed to the public upon the unopposed request of a defendant, without any demonstration that closure is required to protect the defendant’s superior right to a fair trial, or that some other overriding consideration requires closure[?]”
Held. The majority first observed “the historical evidence demonstrates conclusively that at the time when our organic laws were adopted, criminal trials both here and in England had long been presumptively open. This is no quirk of history; rather, it has long been recognized as an indispensable attribute of an Anglo-American trial.” Further, “[t]he early history of open trials in part reflects the widespread acknowledgment, long before there were behavioral scientists, that public trials had significant community therapeutic value.”
“To work effectively, it is important that society’s criminal process ‘satisfy the appearance of justice,’ and the appearance of justice can best be provided by allowing people to observe it.”
“People in an open society do not demand infallibility from their institutions, but it is difficult for them to accept what they are prohibited from observing. When a criminal trial is conducted in the open, there is at least an opportunity both for understanding the system in general and its workings in a particular case.”
“Despite the history of criminal trials being presumptively open since long before the Constitution, the State presses its contention that neither the Constitution nor the Bill of Rights contains any provision which by its terms guarantees to the public the right to attend criminal trials. Standing alone, this is correct, but there remains the question whether, absent an explicit provision, the Constitution affords protection against exclusion of the public from criminal trials.”
“The Bill of Rights was enacted against the backdrop of the long history of trials being presumptively open. Public access to trials was then regarded as an important aspect of the process itself; the conduct of trials ‘before as many of the people as chose to attend’ was regarded as one of ‘the inestimable advantages of a free English constitution of government.’ In guaranteeing freedoms such as those of speech and press, the First Amendment can be read as protecting the right of everyone to attend trials so as to give meaning to those explicit guarantees.”
“[T]he First Amendment goes beyond protection of the press and the self-expression of individuals to prohibit government from limiting the stock of information from which members of the public may draw.’ Free speech carries with it some freedom to listen. ‘In a variety of contexts this Court has referred to a First Amendment right to `receive information and ideas.’ ” What this means in the context of trials is that the First Amendment guarantees of speech and press, standing alone, prohibit government from summarily closing courtroom doors which had long been open to the public at the time that Amendment was adopted. ‘For the First Amendment does not speak equivocally. . . . It must be taken as a command of the broadest scope that explicit language, read in the context of a liberty-loving society, will allow.’ ”
Moreover, “[t]he right of access to places traditionally open to the public, as criminal trials have long been, may be seen as assured by the amalgam of the First Amendment guarantees of speech and press; and their affinity to the right of assembly is not without relevance. From the outset, the right of assembly was regarded not only as an independent right but also as a catalyst to augment the free exercise of the other First Amendment rights with which it was deliberately linked by the draftsmen.”
“The right of peaceable assembly is a right cognate to those of free speech and free press and is equally fundamental.” People assemble in public places not only to speak or to take action, but also to listen, observe, and learn; indeed, they may ‘assembl[e] for any lawful purpose,’ Subject to the traditional time, place, and manner restrictions, streets, sidewalks, and parks are places traditionally open, where First Amendment rights may be exercised, a trial courtroom also is a public place where the people generally – and representatives of the media – have a right to be present, and where their presence historically has been thought to enhance the integrity and quality of what takes place.”
“Despite the fact that this was the fourth trial of the accused, the trial judge made no findings to support closure; no inquiry was made as to whether alternative solutions would have met the need to ensure fairness; there was no recognition of any right under the Constitution for the public or press to attend the trial. In contrast to the pretrial proceeding dealt with in Gannett, there exist in the context of the trial itself various tested alternatives to satisfy the constitutional demands of fairness was no suggestion that any problems with witnesses could not have been dealt with by their exclusion from the courtroom or their sequestration during the trial. Nor is there anything to indicate that sequestration of the jurors would not have guarded against their being subjected to any improper information. All of the alternatives admittedly present difficulties for trial courts, but none of the factors relied on here was beyond the realm of the manageable. Absent an overriding interest articulated in findings, the trial of a criminal case must be open to the public.”
Discussion. This case demonstrates the interaction between the all forms of the press and criminal trial.