Democracy & Free Speech

Access to Information


Rights to access information ensure the free flow of civic information and enable other civil liberties and rights.

Information access rights are found in the constitution, statutes, and the common law. These rights serve two purposes: (1) to require the government to make certain information available to the people; and (2) to prevent the government from blocking access to certain information or places of information exchange.

Obligation to Make Information Publicly Available

The government’s primary obligation is to ensure access to the law, which includes statutes, regulations, judicial opinions, and any other official statements that carry the force of law.

Rights of access also extend beyond the law. The Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment requires that inmates have “adequate, effective, and meaningful access” to legal research materials so that they may defend themselves in court. The First Amendment, as well as common law rights, also ensure the general public’s access to judicial records and proceedings, although this access does not have to be free.

Access rights have periodically come into conflict with copyright. The Supreme Court has consistently favored access rights when the government or a private individual has tried to copyright certain works, such as official annotations to judicial opinions and statutes.

Prohibition on Blocking Access to Information

The First Amendment prevents the government from blocking access to certain information. This prohibition takes two forms: (1) the government cannot censor information or otherwise prevent people from accessing information, except in very rare circumstances, such as profanity; and (2) the government cannot prevent access to places where information is exchanged, except in very limited circumstances.

The Supreme Court’s last major First Amendment access case involved the right to access websites. In Packingham v. United States, the Court struck down a North Carolina law that prevented registered sex offenders from accessing essentially every important news and communications website on the internet. In doing so, the Court recognized the importance of access to the internet, and social media in particular, to civic engagement.

Recent Documents on Access to Information

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