Citation. 438 U.S. 1, 98 S. Ct. 2588, 57 L. Ed. 2d 553, 1978 U.S.
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Brief Fact Summary.
A television station was denied access to a county jail where an inmate committed suicide.
Synopsis of Rule of Law.
The press has no greater constitutional right to access penal facilities than any member of the general public.
Houchins (Petitioner) is the Sheriff of Alameda County and controls access to the county jail. KQED (Respondent) operates a radio and television station. Respondent reported that a county jail prisoner committed suicide. The report included a statement by a psychiatrist that the jail condition was responsible for the prisoner actions. Respondent requested permission to inspect and photograph the facility but was denied. At the time there was no formal policy regarding public access to the jail. But Petitioner established tours of the facility that was open to the public. Not all areas were viewed and no recording devices were permitted on the tour.
Does the press have a constitutional right of access to a county jail that is greater than a private individual?
No. The United States Constitution does not confer a greater right of access to information on the press. The media is equivalent to any member of the general public.
The existence of the constitutional violation should not have been decided as a right to access question because both the public and the press were denied equally. The jail purposefully denied access to all to eliminate all first hand reports of conditions in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments.
Concurrence. The concurrence agrees with the judgment, but stated that Respondent was entitled to injunctive relief. As the substitute for the majority of the public, the press needs to use cameras and sound equipment to accurately describe the jail conditions.
Although the press serves as the “eyes and ears of the public” it does not enjoy unlimited access to information. Limiting access does not infringe upon the freedom of the press to communicate or publish. They have alternative sources of determining the conditions of the penal facilities in the state. Furthermore, the amount of public access to jails is a policy issue that should be decided by the legislature and not the c