Richmond Newspapers, Inc. v. Commonwealth of Virginia, 448 U.S. 555; 100 S. Ct. 2814; 65 L. Ed. 2d 973 (1980)

Richmond Newspapers, Inc. v. Commonwealth of Virginia, 448 U.S. 555; 100 S. Ct. 2814; 65 L. Ed. 2d 973 (1980)

Facts—Before the trial of a suspected murderer began, counsel for the defendant moved that the proceedings be closed to the public, thus excluding two Richmond newspaper reporters from the courtroom. There was no objection by the prosecution and the decision to clear the courtroom was left entirely to the discretion of the presiding judge. After the judge ordered that the courtroom be kept clear of all parties except the witnesses when they testified, Richmond Newspapers sought a hearing on a motion to vacate the order. The court denied the motion and ordered the trial to continue with the press and public excluded. The judge then granted a defense motion to strike the prosecution’s evidence and found the defendant not guilty of murder, and the court granted the newspaper’s motion to intervene in the case. The newspaper petitioned the Virginia Supreme Court for writs of mandamus and prohibition and filed an appeal from the trial court’s closure order, but the Virginia Supreme Court dismissed the petitions and denied the appeal.

Question—Is the right of the public and press to attend criminal trials guaranteed under the United States Constitution?


ReasonsC.J. Burger (7–1). “The origins of the proceeding, which has become the modern criminal trial in Anglo-American justice can be traced back beyond reliable historical records. [T]hroughout its evolution, the trial has been open to all who cared to observe we are bound to conclude that a presumption of openness inheres in the very nature of a criminal trial under our system of justice. The Bill of Rights was enacted against the backdrop of the long history of trials being presumptively open. Public access to trials was then regarded as an important aspect of the process itself. In guaranteeing freedoms such as those of speech and press, the First Amendment can be read as protecting the right of everyone to attend trials so as to give meaning to those explicit guarantees. [T]he First Amendment guarantees of speech and press, standing alone, prohibit government from summarily closing courtroom doors which had long been open to the public at the time that amendment was adopted. . . . [A] trial courtroom is a public place where the people generally— and representatives of the media—have a right to be present, and where their presence historically has been thought to enhance the integrity and quality of what takes place. We hold that the right to attend criminal trials is implicit in the guarantees of the First Amendment; without the freedom to attend such trials, important aspects of freedom of speech and of the press could be eviscerated.”

J. Rehnquist, dissenting, decried the Supreme Court’s increased willingness to intervene in matters involving state trials. He favored allowing the state court to strike the ultimate balance between First and Sixth Amendment rights.

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