Branzberg v. Hayes

Following is the case brief for Branzberg v. Hayes, United States Supreme Court, (1972)

Case summary for Branzberg v. Hayes:

  • Paul Branzberg, along with two others, challenged their contempt convictions after each refused to testify at a grand jury regarding the confidential identities and information they received.
  • Each defendant claimed First Amendment protection as a news reporter, stating they were not required to provide the confidential information as it would discourage the informants from providing future news worthy information.
  • In a consolidated case before the United States Supreme Court, each claimed that disclosure would result in a deprivation of the free flow of information in society.
  • The Court held that due to the confidential nature of grand jury proceedings, news reporters are not exempt from testifying to confidential information Under the First Amendment.

Branzberg v. Hayes Case Brief

Statement of the facts:

A staff reporter by the name of Branzberg published an article which detailed his perception of Jefferson County residents making marijuana hash. The residents claimed they had made about $5,000 in about three weeks from selling the hashish. After receiving a subpoena, Branzberg refused to provide an identification for the court. The court ordered him to answer despite his claim that his identification was protected under the First Amendment.

Two other reporters, Pappas, a television photographer, and Earl Caldwell, a New York Times reporter, were summoned by the courts to answer question regarding their interactions and observations regarding the Black Panther Party’s activities. Both also claimed protection under the First Amendment as a basis for their refusal to answer questions.

Prosecutor Hayes held the three defendants in contempt and the three men challenged their convictions.

Procedural History:

Each of the three men were convicted of contempt and appealed their consolidated cases to the United States Supreme Court who granted their writ of certiorari.

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

A state may require a news reporter to testify before federal or state grand juries regarding information the reporter obtained in confidence without violating the First Amendment.

Issue and Holding:

Does a state violate a news reporters First Amendment rights when it requires a reporter to testify before a federal or state grand jury? No.


The Supreme Court affirmed the news reporters’ convictions for contempt.


Congress is free to create a statutory exemption for those in the defendants’ positions but the First Amendment does not in and of itself require it. The main issue is whether reporters are obligated to the same extent as other citizens to answer to questions related to a crime related investigation. Each defendant alleges that if they are required to reveal identities or information gathered as a result of confidential sources, the sources may be discouraged from providing future information and would result in an interference with the free flow of information in society.

The Court held that prior decisions show that the First Amendment does not inevitably invalidate all incidental burdens on the press. The defendants argue that an exception should apply to this general rule, specifically for news reporters. Weight of relevant authority recommends that news reporters are not excused from the duty to answer questions when appearing in front of a grand jury.

Here, no basis exists for holding that the public interest in grand jury proceedings and law enforcement is inadequate in comparison to the unknown burden on gathering news that could potentially result from requiring grand jury testimony. The risks articulated by the defendants are uncertain and grand juries are usually conducted in a highly secretive manner. As a result, most of the information obtained at a grand jury proceeding would remain confidential.

Concurring or Dissenting opinion:

Concurring (Powell):

Today’s holding should be viewed with limitations which outline that the harassment of newsmen will not be tolerated as grand jury investigations must be conducted in good-faith. When asked to testify about information that bears only a tenuous relationship to a grand jury investigation, reporters should not be required to respond.

Dissenting (Stewart):

News reporters should have a right to a confidential relationship with their sources, protected under the Constitution. Requiring reporters to unveil such information weakens the historic individuality of the press. Today’s decision makes it unlikely that future potential informants will trust reporters with confidential information, depriving the public.


This decision invalidated the use of the First Amendment as a defense for news reporters to refuse to testify when summoned by the court to testify before a grand jury regarding a criminal investigation.

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