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Richmond Newspapers, Inc. v. Virginia 448 U.S. 555 (1980)

RICHMOND NEWSPAPERS, INC. v. VIRGINIA 448 U.S. 555 (1980)

Richmond Newspapers recognized a constitutional right of access to criminal trials. It marked the first time a majority embraced any such first amendment claim. Yet division and bitterness obviously remained from the splintered decision a year earlier in gannett v. depasquale, which had held that the Sixth Amendment did not preclude closing a pretrial suppression hearing to the press and public.

In Richmond Newspapers, a 7–1 majority distinguished Gannett and held that the press and public share a right of access to actual criminal trials, though the press may enjoy some preference. In the plurality opinion, Chief Justice warren e. burger found a right to attend criminal trials within "unarticulated rights" implicit in the First Amendment rights of speech, press, and assembly, as well as within other constitutional language and the uninterrupted Anglo-American tradition of open trials. This right to an open trial prevailed over efforts by Virginia courts to close a murder trial, premised on the defendant's request to do so. The trial judge had made no particularized finding that a fair trial could not be guaranteed by means less drastic than total closure.

Justice william h. rehnquist was alone in dissent, but only Justices byron r. white and john paul stevens concurred in Burger's opinion. Justice lewis f. powell took no part in the decision. Four Justices concurred separately in the judgment. They differed about whether Gannett actually was distinguishable, what weight to give history, and what particular constitutional basis mandated the result.

Richmond Newspapers decided only the unconstitutionality of a total ban on public access to actual criminal trials when there is no demonstration that alternative means could not guarantee a fair trial. Yet the decision is significant for its recognition of a First Amendment right to gather newsworthy information; moreover, some Justices identified a broad right to receive information about government, including the activities of the judicial branch.

Aviam Soifer
(1986)

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