Saxbe v. Washington Post, 417 U.S. 817 (1974)

2012-09-02 07:18:18

In Saxbe v. Washington Post, 417 U.S. 817 (1974) and Pell v. Procunier, 417 U.S. 843 (1974), a five-to-four majority of the Supreme Court allowed Federal and California prison officials to ban all press interviews with specific individual inmates. Writing for the majority, Justice Potter Stewart ruled that because the members of the general public were not entitled to speak to specific inmates, neither could members of the press, citing Branzburg v. Hayes, 408 U.S. 665 (1972) for the proposition that journalists have no rights greater than the general public. He stressed that journalists were accorded substantial access in other ways to both the federal and California prisons to report on conditions.

The Court also relied on representations by prison officials that press attention might be concentrated on certain individuals. These inmates thereby became ‘‘big wheels,’’ acquiring great influence among prisoners and creating serious security problems.

Justice Powell wrote for the dissenters. While agreeing that the press had no constitutional rights superior to those of ordinary citizens, he argued that the First Amendment was intended to preserve free and informed public discussion of such vital governmental affairs as the condition and administration of prisons. Because the press served as agent for the general public, the blanket ban constituted an unconstitutional infringement of the public’s right to receive information and ideas. Problems with specific ‘‘big wheel’’ inmates could be handled on an individual basis.

A six-to-three majority of the Court, including Justice Powell, also ruled in Pell that inmates had no constitutional right to be interviewed.


References and Further Reading

  • Schwartz, Herman, ed. The Burger Years. Viking Press, 1987.

Cases and Statutes Cited

See also Branzburg v. Hayes, 408 U.S. 665 (1972); Pell v. Procunier, 417 U.S. 843 (1974)