Houchins v. KQED, Inc.,
438 U.S. 1 (1978)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Houchins v. KQED, Inc., 438 U.S. 1 (1978)

Houchins v. KQED, Inc.

No. 76-1310

Argued November 29, 1977

Decided June 26, 1978

438 U.S. 1


After respondent broadcasting company, KQED, had been refused permission to inspect and take photographs at a portion (Little Greystone) of a county jail where a prisoner's suicide reportedly had occurred and where conditions were assertedly responsible for prisoners' problems, respondents brought this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against petitioner, who supervised the jail, claiming deprivation of their First Amendment rights. Thereafter petitioner announced a program of regular monthly tours open to the public, including media reporters, of parts of the jail (but not including Little Greystone). Cameras or tape recorders were not allowed on the tours, nor were interviews with inmates. Persons, including members of the media, who knew a prisoner at the jail could visit him. The District Court preliminarily enjoined petitioner from denying KQED news personnel and responsible news media representatives reasonable access to the jail, including Little Greystone, and from preventing their using photographic or sound equipment or from conducting inmate interviews. The Court of Appeals affirmed.

Held: The judgment is reversed and the case is remanded. Pp. 438 U. S. 8-16; 438 U. S. 16-19.

546 F.2d 284, reversed and remanded.

THE CHIEF JUSTICE, joined by MR. JUSTICE WHITE and MR. JUSTICE REHNQUIST, concluded that neither the First Amendment nor the Fourteenth Amendment provides a right of access to government information

Page 438 U. S. 2

or sources of information within the government's control. The news media have no constitutional right of access to the county jail, over and above that of other persons, to interview inmates and make sound recordings, films, and photographs for publication and broadcasting by newspapers, radio, and television. Pell v. Procunier, 417 U. S. 817; Saxbe v. Washington Post 417 U. S. 843. Pp. 438 U. S. 8-16.

(a) The public importance of conditions in penal facilities and the media's role of providing information afford no basis for reading into the Constitution a right of the public or the media to enter those institutions, gather information, and take pictures for broadcast purposes. The First Amendment does not guarantee a right of access to sources of information within government control. Grosjean v. American Press, 297 U. S. 233, Mills v. Alabama, 384 U. S. 214, and other cases relied upon by respondents, concerned the freedom of the press to communicate information already obtained, but neither Grosjean nor Mills indicated that the Constitution compels the government to provide the press with information. Pp. 438 U. S. 8-12.

(b) Whether the government should open penal institutions in the manner sought by respondents is a matter for legislative, not judicial, resolution. Pp. 438 U. S. 12-16.

MR. JUSTICE STEWART, while agreeing that the Constitution does no more than assure the public and the press equal access to information generated or controlled by the government once the government has opened its doors, concluded that terms of access that are reasonably imposed on individual members of the public may -- if they impede effective reporting without sufficient justification -- be unreasonable as applied to journalists who are at a jail to convey to the general public what the visitors see. KQED was thus clearly entitled to some preliminary relief from the District Court, but not to an order requiring petitioner to permit reporters into the Little Greystone facility and requiring him to let them interview randomly encountered inmates. In those respects, the injunction gave the press access to areas and sources of information from which persons on the public tours had been excluded, thus enlarging the scope of what had been opened to public view. Pp. 438 U. S. 16-19.

BURGER, C.J., announced the Court's judgment and delivered an opinion, in which WHITE and REHNQUIST, JJ., joined. STEWART, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 438 U. S. 16. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN and POWELL, JJ., joined, post, p. 438 U. S. 19. MARSHALL, and BLACKMUN, JJ., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

Page 438 U. S. 3

Primary Holding

The First Amendment does not provide a right of access to the media to interview certain prisoners that goes beyond the general public right of access to a county jail.


KQED reported news related to prisons and jails in the San Francisco area through its television and radio stations. During its report on the suicide of a prisoner in the Santa Rita jail, it included statements by a psychiatrist there that prisoners were suffering because of the conditions in the facility. As a result, KQED sought permission from County Sheriff Houchins to enter the facility for inspection and photographing. It appealed his denial on First Amendment grounds.



  • Warren Earl Burger (Author)
  • Byron Raymond White
  • William Hubbs Rehnquist

The First Amendment does not provide the media with automatic access to all information within the government's control. There are other ways to bring the public's attention to problems in prisons, such as by publishing letters from inmates, interviewing lawyers for prisoners, or seeking interviews from former inmates, visitors, public officials, and staff.


  • Potter Stewart (Author)

If restrictions on access lack a sufficient justification for impeding the effective reporting of the news, they may be unreasonable with regard to journalists who are trying to convey information that individual visitors can see. The media outlet should have received a preliminary injunction.


  • John Paul Stevens (Author)
  • William Joseph Brennan, Jr.
  • Lewis Franklin Powell, Jr.

Other facilities have granted access to the same media outlet for inspection and photographing. This has not disrupted their ability to function properly. The First Amendment requires the government to refrain from undermining the free flow of information, which requires access by the press in situations like these.


  • Thurgood Marshall (Author)
  • Harry Andrew Blackmun

Case Commentary

The Court relied on pointing out that the press had other, less intrusive ways to cover the story and present the information that the public needed to receive. Transmitting information to the public does not require unlimited access, and courts should not be placed in the position of overruling the legislature in granting this access.

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