Public access to the judicial system is a necessary element in a constitutional democracy. The idea behind “We the People” — the notion that the people are sovereign — assumes that the people govern their institutions. For the judicial system, that means the public and press must be able to attend proceedings and access records used to determine consequential moments in people’s lives. The Supreme Court has said that this right to access our courts is protected by the First Amendment, with limited but notable exceptions.
This Teacher Guide on Access to Courts and Court Records provides an overview of the First Amendment right to observe hearings and trials and obtain records about civil and criminal cases, with a look at some of the major Supreme Court rulings that have shaped this right. Written by First Amendment scholar David L. Hudson Jr. and published in collaboration with the First Amendment Watch of New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, the guide is an educational tool that can be incorporated into courses on media law, journalism, history and politics.