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

2012-07-13 06:12:23


In Houchins v. KQED, Inc., the U.S. Supreme Court in a plurality decision ruled that the First Amendment does not require the right of access to government information or sources of information within the government’s control. Radio and televisions broadcaster KQED, Inc., contended that its First Amendment right to gather the news implicitly included a right of access to the Santa Rita county jail to investigate horrid prison conditions that allegedly caused one prisoner to commit suicide and contributed to prisoner mental illness. The Supreme Court disagreed, and decided that the restrictions imposed by the county sheriff permitting the media to join other members of the public in monthly tours of the jail, but prohibiting the press from bringing cameras and tape recorders and interviewing the prisoners, were permissible under the First Amendment. While acknowledging the public importance of prison conditions and the media’s role in publicizing those conditions, the Supreme Court emphatically eschewed any First Amendment guarantee of access to sources of information within government control beyond that afforded the public generally.

The decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in Houchins is important for two reasons. First, the decision clarifies the reach of the First Amendment by expressly protecting the right of the press to gather and disseminate news, but excluding any corollary obligation by the government to supply or grant access to information. Second, Houchins rejects the notion that the press has special status under the First Amendment; rather, the right of the press to promote free discussion of ideas and exchange opinions is neither different from nor greater than the right of the public generally.



References and Further Reading

  • Collins, Tom A., The Press Clause Construed in Context: The Journalists’ Right of Access to Places, Missouri Law Review (1987): 773–84.
  • Pell v. Procunier, 417 U.S. 817 (1974).
  • Saxbe v. Washington Post Co., 417 U.S. 843 (1974).
  • Schwartz, Bernard, Is There a Press Right of Access to News That Allows Television of Executions?, Tulsa Law Journal (1994): 313–9.
  • The Supreme Court, 1977 Term, Harvard Law Review (1978): 174–84.