Neither the First Amendment nor the Fourteenth Amendment mandates a right of access to government information or sources of information within the government's control.
On March 31, 1975, KQED, operator of a licensed television and radio broadcasting stations which have frequently reported newsworthy events relating to penal institutions in the San Francisco Bay Area, reported the suicide of a prisoner in the Greystone portion of the Santa Rita jail. The report included a statement by a psychiatrist that the conditions at the Greystone facility were responsible for the illnesses of his patient-prisoners there. As part of its investigatory report, KQED requested permission from petitioner Houchins, the Sheriff of Alameda County, to inspect and take pictures within the Greystone facility; however, petitioner refused KQED’s request. Thereafter, KQED and the Alameda and Oakland branches of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) filed suit under 42 U. S. C. § 1983. They alleged that Houchins had violated the First Amendment by refusing to permit media access and failing to provide any effective means by which the public could be informed of conditions prevailing in the Greystone facility or learn of the prisoners' grievances. KQED and NAACP asserted that public access to such information was essential, in order for NAACP members to participate in the public debate on jail conditions in Alameda County. They further asserted that television coverage of the conditions in the cells and facilities was the most effective way of informing the public of prison conditions. After the institution of the complaint, Houchins announced a program of regular monthly tours open to the public, including media reporters, of parts of the jail (but not including Little Greystone); however, cameras or tape recorders were not allowed on the tours, nor were interviews with inmates. The District Court preliminarily enjoined Houchins 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 the District Court’s decision.
Was Houchins’ refusal of KQED’s request to inspect a particular area of the prison facility violative of the First Amendment?
The Court held that neither the First Amendment nor the Fourteenth Amendment provides a right of access to government information or sources of information within the government's control. According to the Court, 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.