The Supreme Court heard arguments yesterday over whether a sheriff can put jail facilities off limits to the press simply because he bars the general public from the same facilities.
Some of the Justices posed hard - and sometimes seemingly hostile - questions to attorney William B. Turner of San Francisco, who was representing a California educational television station seeking access to the Alameda County Jail in Santa Rita and its inmates.
The questioning centered on a 1975 federal court order requiring Sheriff Thomas L. Houchins to let station KQED enter the jail to do what he could not let the general public do: prove conditions with TV cameras and tape recorders, provided this would not imperil security or discipline.
The statin sought to enter the prison after an inmate's suicide focused attention on conditions there.
In questioning Turner, Justice Byron R. White representedly characterized the access ordered for KQED as a "special privilege." The access order was upheld by the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Another major concern of the justices was how to apply to this case two 1974 rulings in which the Supreme Court held that the press has no constitutional right of access to prisons or prisoners beyond that afforded the general public.
Under the 1974 rulings, said Justice Potter Stewart, who wrote the opinions, "it's a perfectly logical position" that where access to the general public is zero it can be zero for the press.
That equation was rejected by Turner, who is currently doing research at Harvard Law School. He said the press had to be able to find out if conditions were being concealed by jailers as they held involuntary confinement persons poorly situated to assert or protect their rights.
That's "a brand-new doctrine that I've never heard of," he wondered, could the press seek access to "the war room at the Pentagon," or to closed sessions of various public agencies and possibly of the Courts themselves?
No, replied Turner. Agencies and the courts have information that properly cannot be made public, while information about jail conditions cannot be claimed to be confidential, he said.
Stewart rejoined that "the very reasons that a jail is a jail," such as security and discipline, warrant exclusion of reporters.
In reply to a question by Chief Justice Warren Burger, Turner likened jails that would keep the press out altogether, or that bar press examination of penal conditions, to prisons in South Africa that often preclude reporting of happenings within their walls.
[TEXT OMITTED FROM SOURCE] cisco Bay area, all sheriffs but Houchins open their jails to press inspections.
Justice William H. Renquist, indicating doubt that barring the press from the Alameda County Jail would violate the Constitution, pointed out that Houchins, who is elected, could be voted out of office if the public objected to his access policy.
After the 1975 court order, Houchins instituted previously planned monthly tours for 25 or so member of the public, theoretically including reporters, who signed up in advance. The tours go to pre-selected facilited - but not to a troubled barracks for pre-trial detainees called Little Greystone.
Persons on the tour cannot talk to inmates or carry cameras or tape recorders, Kelvin H. Booty Jr. Alameda County deputy senior counsel, told the court.
He said that reporters and citizens are equally free to come to a guarded visitor area to see inmates who ask to see them, and to receive letters and phone calls from inmates.
Booty emphasized that the judge who issued the order had made no findings that Houchins had tried to conceal conditions in the jail.