Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Conflict between constitutional rights is not uncommon. One of the most difficult to resolve is the conflict between a criminal defendant’s Fifth and Sixth Amendment rights to a fair trial and the First Amendment’s protection of the rights to obtain and publish information about defendants and trials. Convictions obtained in the context of prejudicial pre-trial publicity 1 and during trials that were media
spectaculars 2 have been reversed, but the prevention of such occurrences is of paramount importance to the governmental and public interest in the finality of criminal trials and the successful prosecution of criminals. However, the imposition of
gag orders on press publication of information directly confronts the First Amendment’s bar on prior restraints, 3 although the courts have a good deal more discretion in preventing the information from becoming public in the first place. 4 Perhaps the most profound debate that has arisen in recent years concerns the right of access of the public and the press to trial and pre-trial proceedings, and the Court has addressed the issue.
When the Court held that the Sixth Amendment right to a public trial did not guarantee access of the public and the press to pre-trial suppression hearings, 5 a major debate flowered concerning the extent to which, if at all, the speech and press clauses protected the public and the press in seeking to attend trials. 6 The right of access to criminal trials against the wishes of the defendant was held protected in Richmond Newspapers v. Virginia, 7 but the Justices could not agree upon a majority rationale that would permit principled application of the holding to other areas in which access is sought.
Chief Justice Burger pronounced the judgment of the Court, but his opinion was joined by only two other Justices (and one of them in a separate concurrence drew conclusions probably going beyond the Chief Justice’s opinion). 8 Basic to the Chief Justice’s view was an historical treatment that demonstrated that trials were traditionally open. This openness, moreover, was no
quirk of history but
an indispensable attribute of an Anglo-American trial. This characteristic flowed from the public interest in seeing fairness and proper conduct in the administration of criminal trials; the
therapeutic value to the public of seeing its criminal laws in operation, purging the society of the outrage felt at the commission of many crimes, convincingly demonstrated why the tradition had developed and been maintained. Thus,
a presumption of openness inheres in the very nature of a criminal trial under our system of justice. The presumption has more than custom to command it.
[I]n the context of trials . . . the 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. 9
Justice Brennan, joined by Justice Marshall, followed a significantly different route to the same conclusion. In his view,
the First Amendment . . . has a structural role to play in securing and fostering our republican system of self-government. Implicit in this structural role is not only ‘the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open,’ but the antecedent assumption that valuable public debate – as well as other civic behavior – must be informed. The structural model links the First Amendment to that process of communication necessary for a democracy to survive, and thus entails solicitude not only for communication itself but also for the indispensable conditions of meaningful communication. 10
The trial court in Richmond Newspapers had made no findings of necessity for closure, and neither Chief Justice Burger nor Justice Brennan found the need to articulate a standard for determining when the government’s or the defendant’s interests could outweigh the public right of access. That standard was developed two years later. Globe Newspaper Co. v. Superior Court 11 involved a statute, unique to one state, that mandated the exclusion of the public and the press from trials during the testimony of a sex-crime victim under the age of 18. For the Court, Justice Brennan wrote that the First Amendment guarantees press and public access to criminal trials, both because of the tradition of openness 12 and because public scrutiny of a criminal trial serves the valuable functions of enhancing the quality and safeguards of the integrity of the factfinding process, of fostering the appearance of fairness, and of permitting public participation in the judicial process. The right is not absolute, but in order to close all or part of a trial government must show that
the denial is necessitated by a compelling governmental interest, and [that it] is narrowly tailored to serve that interest. 13 The Court was explicit that the right of access was to criminal trials, 14 so that the question of the openness of civil trials remains.
The Court next applied and extended the right of access in several other areas, striking down state efforts to exclude the public from voir dire proceedings, from a suppression hearing, and from a preliminary hearing. The Court determined in Press-Enterprise I 15 that historically voir dire had been open to the public, and that
[t]he presumption of openness may be overcome only by an overriding interest based on findings that closure is essential to preserve higher values and is narrowly tailored to serve that interest. 16 No such findings had been made by the state court, which had ordered closed, in the interest of protecting the privacy interests of some prospective jurors, 41 of the 44 days of voir dire in a rape-murder case. The trial court also had not considered the possibility of less restrictive alternatives, e.g., in camera consideration of jurors’ requests for protection from publicity. In Waller v. Georgia, 17 the Court held that
under the Sixth Amendment any closure of a suppression hearing over the objections of the accused must meet the tests set out in Press Enterprise, 18 and noted that the need for openness at suppression hearings
may be particularly strong because the conduct of police and prosecutor is often at issue. 19 And, in Press Enterprise II, 20 the Court held that there is a similar First Amendment right of the public to access to most criminal proceedings (here a preliminary hearing) even when the accused requests that the proceedings be closed. Thus, an accused’s Sixth Amendment-based request for closure must meet the same stringent test applied to governmental requests to close proceedings: there must be
specific findings . . . demonstrating that first, there is a substantial probability that the defendant’s right to a fair trial will be prejudiced by publicity that closure would prevent, and second, reasonable alternatives to closure cannot adequately protect the defendant’s fair trial rights. 21 Openness of preliminary hearings was deemed important because, under California law, the hearings can be
the final and most important step in the criminal proceeding and therefore may be
the sole occasion for public observation of the criminal justice system, and also because the safeguard of a jury is unavailable at preliminary hearings. 22