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Richmond Newspapers, Inc. v. Virginia

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Brief Fact Summary.

After a series of mistrials, a trial judge closed a murder trial to the public and the press.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

The First Amendment generally prohibits closing criminal trial proceedings to the public.

Points of Law - Legal Principles in this Case for Law Students.

We have found nothing to suggest that the presumptive openness of the trial, which English courts were later to call one of the essential qualities of a court of justice, was not also an attribute of the judicial systems of colonial America.

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Facts.

After a murder case in Virginia ended in 3 mistrials, a trial judge closed the fourth trial to the public and the press. Although the prosecution did not oppose the motion, 2 reporters at Richmond Newspapers, Inc. challenged the judge’s action, arguing that the public had a First Amendment right to attend criminal trials.

Issue.

Did the closure of the trial to the press and public violate the First Amendment?

Held.

Yes, the closure of the trial to the press and public violated the First Amendment?

Dissent.

Justice Rehnquist

In a case where both the prosecution and defense have consented to a court-approved closure order, there is nothing in the Constitution that prevents a state from denying public access to a trial. The issue here is not whether the right to freedom of the process overrides the defendant’s right to a fair trial. Rather, the issue is whether any provision in the Constitution may be read to prohibit what the trial court did in this case. There is no such prohibition located in the Constitution.

Concurrence.

Justice Brennan

This Court has persistently defended the public character of the trial process. With respect to judicial proceedings, the function of the press serves to guarantee the fairness of trials and to bring to bear the beneficial effects of public scrutiny upon the administration of justice. Open trials play a fundamental role in furthering the efforts of our judicial system to assure the criminal defendant a fair and accurate adjudication of guilt or innocence. Closing the courtroom doors is at odds with this demonstrative purpose.

Justice Stewart

Just as a legislature may impose reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions upon the exercise of First Amendment freedoms, so may a trial judge impose reasonable limitations upon the unrestricted occupation of a courtroom by representatives of the press and members of the public. There exists many alternative ways to satisfy the constitutional demands of a fair trial. Those demands may also sometimes justify limits upon the unrestricted presence of spectators in the courtroom.

Justice Stevens

Twice before, the Court has implied that any governmental restriction on access to information, no matter how severe and no matter how unjustified, would be constitutionally acceptable so long as it did not single out the press for special disabilities not applicable to the public at large. Today, however, for the first time, the Court unequivocally holds that an arbitrary interference with access to important information is an abridgement of the freedoms of speech and of the press protected by the First Amendment.

Discussion.

The right to attend criminal trials is implicit in the guarantees of the First Amendment–the government may not summarily close courtroom doors, which had long been open to the public. The First Amendment encompasses not only the right to speak but also the freedom to listen and to receive information and ideas. The Court also noted that the First Amendment guaranteed the right of assembly in public places such as courthouses. The Court emphasized that certain unarticulated rights were implicit in enumerated guarantees and were often indispensable to the enjoyment of such explicitly outlined rights.


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