448 U.S. 555 (1980), argued 19 Feb. 1980, decided 2 July 1980 by vote of 7 to 1; Burger for the Court, Rehnquist in dissent, Powell not participating. After a series of inconclusive and confusing earlier decisions on the right of access to criminal trials, Richmond Newspapers, Inc. v. Virginia announced that the public and the press have a First Amendment right to attend criminal trials. This landmark 1980 Supreme Court decision left other issues open, however, some of which have since been resolved.
In a number of cases during the 1970s the Supreme Court supported the media's right, under the First Amendment, to publish whatever information they had in their possession—whether classified and obtained surreptiously (New York Times Co. v. United States, 1971), or whether obtained in open court (Nebraska Press Association v. Stuart, 1976). Having established that the press could publish what they knew, the Supreme Court then faced the question of whether the press was constitutionally entitled to access to criminal court proceedings.
In Gannett v. DePasquale (1979), a newspaper reporter challenged the court-ordered closure of a pretrial hearing on suppression of evidence in a murder case. The closure resulted from the defendants’ concern (shared by the prosecutor) that pretrial publicity would jeopardize their right to a fair trial. On appeal, the Supreme Court upheld the exclusion of press and public from pretrial hearings on the ground that only the accused has a Sixth Amendment right to demand an open trial. In contrast, several dissenters in Gannett saw the Sixth Amendment as protecting not only the defendant's but also the public's right of access.
The Gannett decision was close (5 to 4), fragmented (five separate opinions), and ambiguous in its scope (whether this ruling on pretrials would extend to trials) over the application of the First Amendment to the issue of access (which the Court did not decide) and over the findings needed to justify closure. Despite this uncertainty, Gannett gave new power to trial judges who increasingly granted motions to close all types of criminal proceedings. Representatives of the news media protested Gannett and urged the Court to reconsider and affirm a public right to access to court.
The Court did so the next year. In Richmond Newspapers Inc. v. Virginia, it severely limited the defendant's right to a closed courtroom by holding that the First and Fourteenth Amendments guarantee the right of the public (including the press) to attend criminal trials. This case began with the fourth murder trial of a defendant whose earlier trials had been reversed or declared mistrials. Out of concern for pretrial publicity and relying on a Virginia statute, the trial court granted the defendant's motion to exclude the press. Richmond Newspapers challenged the order and sued for access to the trial. The Supreme Court affirmed the First Amendment right of access in its 7-to-1 decision.
The majority view in Richmond Newspapers was expressed in six different opinions. Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote for the Court, emphasizing the long history of criminal trials at common law and their presumption of openness. Burger concluded that the press exclusion must be overturned since the trial judge had not pursued alternatives to courtroom closure nor had he made specific findings to support the order. Justices Byron White and John Paul Stevens joined Burger's opinion but also wrote separately. Justice White, a dissenter in Gannett, simply noted that this case would have been unnecessary had the Court found a Sixth Amendment right to courtroom access in the earlier decision. Justice Stevens, in his concurrence, extended the principle to prohibit arbitrary governmental restrictions on access to other important and newsworthy information.