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Houchins v. KQED


Despite the Court's shift to a more conservative political orientation in the 1980s and 1990s, including a more restrictive view of constitutional rights, the press enjoyed as much freedom as ever. However, the importance of the Houchins case is the finding that the media's right of access to government information is no greater than the public's. Yet many agree with Justice Stevens that since the press serves to inform the public, its access should be greater. The press plays an important role not just in reporting information, but also in sifting through large quantities of information during its research. The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), passed by Congress in 1988, served to provide public access to considerable amounts of government information. No comparable measure provides access to government facilities, such as prisons.

In regard to prison access, the national media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) focused in part on press censorship issues. FAIR identified three states in 1996 attempting to substantially restrict access of journalists to state prisons. Illinois banned one-to-one interviews with death row inmates. Virginia barred prison tours, photographs, and face-to-face inmate interviews. In addition to an interview ban, California sought to eliminate confidential mail privileges between inmates and members of the media. FAIR asserted that such actions not only gags the mouths of inmates--contrary to their First Amendment rights--but violates the news media's and public's constitutional rights of access as well.

The dispute over media access to government information increased through the 1990s as competition among the media grew. The rise in popularity of sensationalist television tabloid shows also contributed to the push for greater access. There remains no clear principle for courts to apply in determining the appropriateness of access in specific cases. Legal scholars suggested several key principles to safeguard press access rights to government information. The principles involved protecting the news media from: (1) preferential treatment; (2) denial of access where traditionally allowed; and (3) access policy that seems to arbitrarily change without sufficient reason. Some contend that balancing, on a case-by-case basis, the right of press access against government interest in confidentiality, places the Court in undesirable situations as the Houchins case demonstrated.

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