438 U.S. 1 (1978), 76-1310, Houchins v. KQED, Inc.

Docket Nº:No. 76-1310
Citation:438 U.S. 1, 98 S.Ct. 2588, 57 L.Ed.2d 553
Party Name:Houchins v. KQED, Inc.
Case Date:June 26, 1978
Court:United States Supreme Court

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438 U.S. 1 (1978)

98 S.Ct. 2588, 57 L.Ed.2d 553



KQED, Inc.

No. 76-1310

United States Supreme Court

June 26, 1978

Argued November 29, 1977




After respondent broadcasting company, KQED, had been refused permission to inspect and take photographs at a portion (Little Greystone) of a county jail where a prisoner's suicide reportedly had occurred and where conditions were assertedly responsible for prisoners' problems, respondents brought this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against petitioner, who supervised the jail, claiming deprivation of their First Amendment rights. Thereafter petitioner announced a program of regular monthly [98 S.Ct. 2590] tours open to the public, including media reporters, of parts of the jail (but not including Little Greystone). Cameras or tape recorders were not allowed on the tours, nor were interviews with inmates. Persons, including members of the media, who knew a prisoner at the jail could visit him. The District Court preliminarily enjoined petitioner from denying KQED news personnel and responsible news media representatives reasonable access to the jail, including Little Greystone, and from preventing their using photographic or sound equipment or from conducting inmate interviews. The Court of Appeals affirmed.

Held: The judgment is reversed and the case is remanded. Pp. 8-16; 16-19.

546 F.2d 284, reversed and remanded.

THE CHIEF JUSTICE, joined by MR. JUSTICE WHITE and MR. JUSTICE REHNQUIST, concluded that neither the First Amendment nor the Fourteenth Amendment provides a right of access to government information

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or sources of information within the government's control. The news media have no constitutional right of access to the county jail, over and above that of other persons, to interview inmates and make sound recordings, films, and photographs for publication and broadcasting by newspapers, radio, and television. Pell v. Procunier, 417 U.S. 817; Saxbe v. Washington Post 417 U.S. 843. Pp. 8-16.

(a) The public importance of conditions in penal facilities and the media's role of providing information afford no basis for reading into the Constitution a right of the public or the media to enter those institutions, gather information, and take pictures for broadcast purposes. The First Amendment does not guarantee a right of access to sources of information within government control. Grosjean v. American Press, 297 U.S. 233, Mills v. Alabama, 384 U.S. 214, and other cases relied upon by respondents, concerned the freedom of the press to communicate information already obtained, but neither Grosjean nor Mills indicated that the Constitution compels the government to provide the press with information. Pp. 8-12.

(b) Whether the government should open penal institutions in the manner sought by respondents is a matter for legislative, not judicial, resolution. Pp. 12-16.

MR. JUSTICE STEWART, while agreeing that the Constitution does no more than assure the public and the press equal access to information generated or controlled by the government once the government has opened its doors, concluded that terms of access that are reasonably imposed on individual members of the public may -- if they impede effective reporting without sufficient justification -- be unreasonable as applied to journalists who are at a jail to convey to the general public what the visitors see. KQED was thus clearly entitled to some preliminary relief from the District Court, but not to an order requiring petitioner to permit reporters into the Little Greystone facility and requiring him to let them interview randomly encountered inmates. In those respects, the injunction gave the press access to areas and sources of information from which persons on the public tours had been excluded, thus enlarging the scope of what had been opened to public view. Pp. 16-19.

BURGER, C.J., announced the Court's judgment and delivered an opinion, in which WHITE and REHNQUIST, JJ., joined. STEWART, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 16. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN and POWELL, JJ., joined, post, p. 19. MARSHALL, and BLACKMUN, JJ., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

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BURGER, J., lead opinion

MR. CHIEF JUSTICE BURGER announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion, in which MR. JUSTICE WHITE and MR. JUSTICE REHNQUIST joined.

The question presented is whether the news media have a constitutional right of access to a county jail, over and above that of other persons, to interview inmates and make sound recordings, films, and photographs for publication and broadcasting by newspapers, radio, and television.


Petitioner Houchins, as Sheriff of Alameda County, Cal., controls all access to the Alameda County Jail at Santa Rita. Respondent KQED operates licensed television and radio broadcasting stations which have frequently reported newsworthy events relating to penal institutions in the San Francisco Bay Area. On March 31, 1975, KQED reported the suicide of a prisoner in the Greystone portion of the Santa Rita jail. The report included a statement by a psychiatrist that the conditions at the Greystone facility were responsible for the illnesses of his patient-prisoners there, and a statement from petitioner denying that prison conditions were responsible for the prisoners' illnesses.

KQED requested permission to inspect and take pictures within the Greystone facility. After permission was refused, KQED and the Alameda and Oakland branches of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People

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(NAACP) filed suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. They alleged that petitioner had violated the First Amendment by refusing to permit media access and failing to provide any effective means by which the public could be informed of conditions prevailing in the Greystone facility or learn of the prisoners' grievances. Public access to such information was essential, they asserted, in order for NAACP members to participate in the public debate on jail conditions in Alameda County. They further asserted that television coverage of the conditions in the cells and facilities was the most effective way of informing the public of prison conditions.

The complaint requested a preliminary and permanent injunction to prevent petitioner from

excluding KQED news personnel from the Greystone cells and Santa Rita facilities and generally preventing full and accurate news coverage of the conditions prevailing therein.

On June 17, 1975, when the complaint was filed, there appears to have been no formal policy regarding public access to the Santa Rita jail. However, according to petitioner, he had been in the process of planning a program of regular monthly tours since he took office six months earlier. On July 8, 1975, he announced the program and invited all interested persons to make arrangements for the regular public tours. News media were given notice in advance of the public, and presumably could have made early reservations.

Six monthly tours were planned and funded by the county, at an estimated cost of $1,800. The first six scheduled tours were filled within a week after the July 8 announcement.1 A KQED reporter and several other reporters were on the first tour on July 14, 1975.

Each tour was limited to 25 persons, and permitted only limited access to the jail. The tours did not include the disciplinary cells or the portions of the jail known as "Little

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Greystone," the scene of alleged rapes, beatings, and adverse physical conditions. Photographs of some parts of the jail were made available, but no cameras or tape recorders were allowed on the tours. Those on the tours were not permitted to interview inmates, and inmates were generally removed from view.

In support of the request for a preliminary injunction, respondents presented testimony and affidavits stating that other penal complexes had permitted media interviews of inmates and substantial media access without experiencing significant security or administrative problems. They contended that the monthly public tours at Santa Rita failed to provide adequate access to the jail for two reasons: (a) once the scheduled tours had been filled, media representatives who had not signed up for [98 S.Ct. 2592] them had no access, and were unable to cover newsworthy events at the jail; (b) the prohibition on photography and tape recordings, the exclusion of portions of the jail from the tours, and the practice of keeping inmates generally removed from view substantially reduced the usefulness of the tours to the media.

In response, petitioner admitted that Santa Rita had never experimented with permitting media access beyond that already allowed; he did not claim that disruption had been caused by media access to other institutions. He asserted, however, that unregulated access by the media would infringe inmate privacy,2 and tend to create "jail celebrities," who, in turn, tend to generate internal problems and undermine jail security. He also contended that unscheduled media tours would disrupt jail operations.

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Petitioner filed an affidavit noting the various means by which information concerning the jail could reach the public. Attached to the affidavit were the current prison mail, visitation, and phone call regulations. The regulations allowed inmates to send an unlimited number of letters to judges, attorneys, elected officials, the Attorney General, petitioner, jail officials, or probation officers, all of which could be sealed prior to mailing. Other letters were subject to inspection for contraband, but the regulations provided that no inmate mail would be read.

With few exceptions,3 all persons, including representatives of the media, who knew a prisoner could visit him. Media...

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