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Houchins v. KQED


The ruling established that although the press has no greater access rights to government information than the public, both the press and public must be provided some degree of controlled access. While the Supreme Court routinely rules on freedom of the press issues regarding publication of information held by the news media, Congress is identified as the proper branch of government to establish limits on press access to government information. Though the press plays a critical role in the democratic system, limitations on news gathering do exist to safeguard certain government activities.

In 1972 District Court Judge Zirpoli found "shocking and debasing conditions . . . [which] constituted cruel and unusual punishment" at the Alameda County Jail in Santa Rita, California. To answer negative press coverage, jail administrators later that year conducted a carefully supervised public tour of selected parts of the facilities normally not accessible. In March of 1975 a prisoner in the Little Greystone portion of the jail committed suicide. A psychiatrist attributed the suicide to the conditions of the facility. KQED, a San Francisco Bay area licensed television and radio broadcasting company, requested permission to inspect and take pictures within the Little Greystone portion of the facility. After the jail refused permission, KQED, joined by others, filed suit in U.S. district court claiming jail authorities violated their First Amendment rights by refusing access to the news media and not providing for any means of public inspection. KQED asserted that television coverage of facility conditions would be the most effective means of informing the public of jail practices. Shortly after KQED filed the lawsuit, Houchins, sheriff of Alameda County, announced a new monthly public tour program through selected parts of the facility, excluding Little Greystone. Media would be treated as public and could not photograph or record within the facility. As in the 1972 tour, inmates were generally kept from view.

The district court ruled in favor of KQED holding that neither KQED news personnel nor other news media representatives could be barred from the jail, including Little Greystone. The district court also ruled that news personnel could use photographic and sound equipment and conduct interviews "at reasonable times and hours." Sheriff Houchins appealed to the U.S. court of appeals which concurred with the district court's ruling by asserting a public and media First Amendment right of access to prisons and jails. Houchins next appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1973 to 1980Houchins v. KQED - Significance, Freedom To Gather News, The Press Serves The Public, Impact, Talk Radio In The United States