If an attorney, scholar, or citizen opened the 448th volume of the U.S. Reports to page 573, she would find herself midway through a case captioned Richmond Newspapers, Inc. v. Virginia. Context would make clear that the case was brought by a newspaper that wished to report on a criminal trial but was precluded from doing so when the trial judge closed the proceedings. The tenor of the analysis would foreshadow that the newspaper was on its way to a 7-1 victory and a holding that gave it the access it sought to the judicial proceeding. And the tone of the Court's treatment of the newspaper litigant-coupled with more sweeping statements about the democracy-enhancing public service rendered by all similar entities-would suggest strongly that the newspaper's larger societal role in reporting on these matters of public concern was an important driving force for the Court's conclusion. The reader of page 573 would see the Justices of the Supreme Court "praise the media's critical role as surrogate, cite[ ] its importance to public understanding of the law and criminal justice, and speculate[ ] that this justified priority entry and special seating for the valuable institution of the press." The press, the Richmond Newspaper Court explains, is the "chief[ I" source of information to the people and contributes significantly to "public understanding of the rule of law and to comprehension of the functioning of the entire criminal justice system." Reading the page's passages in isolation, the reader might well come away with an understanding that the fact that a newspaper was a party to the case was both constitutionally relevant and outcome determinative.
But the reader would be wrong. The holding of Richmond Newspapers is that, for a variety of reasons rooted in the historical tradition and positive social function of openness, all citizens- including but not limited to the media-have a presumptive First Amendment right to attend a criminal trial. The language on page 573, praising the press and speaking to its role in enhancing democracy and educating the populace, is mere dicta.
Jones, RonNell A.
"The Dangers of Press Clause Dicta,"
Georgia Law Review: Vol. 48:
3, Article 3.
Available at: https://digitalcommons.law.uga.edu/glr/vol48/iss3/3