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U.S. Supreme Court

Nixon v. Warner Communications, Inc., 435 U.S. 589 (1978)

Nixon v. Warner Communications, Inc.

No. 76-944

Argued November 8, 1977

Decided April 18, 1978

435 U.S. 589


During the criminal trial of several of petitioner ex-President's former advisers on charges, inter alia, of conspiring to obstruct justice in connection with the so-called Watergate investigation, some 22 hours of tape recordings made of conversations in petitioner's offices in the White House and Executive Office Building were played to the jury and the public in the courtroom, and the reels of the tapes were admitted into evidence. The District Court furnished the jurors, reporters, and members of the public in attendance with transcripts, which were not admitted as evidence but were widely reprinted in the press. At the close of the trial, in which four of the defendants were convicted, and after an earlier unsuccessful attempt over petitioner's objections to obtain court permission to copy, broadcast, and sell to the public portions of the tapes, respondent broadcasters petitioned for immediate access to the tapes. The District Court denied the petitions on the grounds that, since the convicted defendants had filed notices of appeal, their rights would be prejudiced if respondents' petitions were granted, and that, since the transcripts had apprised the public of the tapes' contents, the public's "right to know" did not overcome the need to safeguard the defendants' rights on appeal. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the mere possibility of prejudice to defendants' rights did not outweigh the public's right of access, that the common law right of access to judicial records required the District Court to release the tapes in its custody, and that therefore the District Court abused its discretion in refusing immediate access.


1. Considering all the circumstances, the common law right of access to judicial records does not authorize release of the tapes in question from the District Court's custody. Pp. 435 U. S. 597-608.

(a) The common law right to inspect and copy judicial records is not absolute, but the decision whether to permit access is best left to the sound discretion of the trial court, a discretion to be exercised in light of the relevant facts and circumstances of the particular case. Pp. 435 U. S. 597-599.

(b) Because of the congressionally prescribed avenue of public access to the tapes provided by the Presidential Recordings and Materials

Page 435 U. S. 590

Preservation Act, whose existence is a decisive element in the proper exercise of discretion with respect to release of the tapes, it is not necessary to weigh the parties' competing arguments for and against release as though the District Court were the only potential source of information regarding these historical materials, and the presence of an alternative means of public access tips the scales in favor of denying release. Pp. 435 U. S. 599-608.

2. The release of the tapes is not required by the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of the press. The question here is not whether the press must be permitted access to public information to which the public generally has access, but whether the tapes, to which the public has never had physical access, must be made available for copying. There is in this case no question of a truncated flow of information to the public, as the contents of the tapes were given wide publicity by all elements of the media, Cox Broadcasting Corp. v. Cohn, 420 U. S. 469, distinguished, and under the First Amendment, the press has no right to information about a trial superior to that of the general public. Pp. 435 U. S. 608-610.

3. Nor is release of the tapes required by the Sixth Amendment guarantee of a public trial. While public understanding of the highly publicized trial may remain incomplete in the absence of the ability to listen to the tapes and form judgments as to their meaning, the same could be said of a live witness' testimony, yet there is no constitutional right to have such testimony recorded and broadcast. The guarantee of a public trial confers no special benefit on the press, nor does it require that the trial, or any part of it, be broadcast live or on tape to the public, but such guarantee is satisfied by the opportunity of the public and the press to attend the trial and to report what they have observed. P. 435 U. S. 610.

179 U.S.App.D.C. 293, 551 F.2d 1252, reversed and remanded.

POWELL, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J.,and STEWART, BLACKMUN, and REHNQUIST, JJ., joined. WHITE, J., filed an opinion dissenting in part, in which BRENNAN, J., joined, post, p. 435 U. S. 611. MARSHALL, J., post, p. 435 U. S. 612, and STEVENS, J., post, p. 435 U. S. 613, filed dissenting opinions.

Page 435 U. S. 591

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