What is a Public Trial?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A public trial is a legal trial held in a court made open to members of the public. Anyone may enter such a trial and observe, assuming there is room in the court, and people can follow information about trial proceedings in the media. In some cases, such trials may be broadcast if there is intense public interest and there are concerns about accommodating all the spectators. This is in contrast with a closed trial, where proceedings are open only to those involved.

A public trial is a right enumerated in the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
A public trial is a right enumerated in the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

In some regions of the world, a public trial is considered a human right. In the United States, for example, the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution includes a clause stating that people are entitled to a public trial. In other nations, people may be subject to closed trials. The term “public trial” has also come to be associated in some countries with a show or sham trial, where trial proceedings are publicized but it is clear to everyone that the trial is being conducted for show, not with the goal of trying the facts in a case.

A public trial is open to members of the public.
A public trial is open to members of the public.

There are certain restrictions on who may attend a public trial. People on the witness list are usually not allowed in the courtroom until after they have testified, out of concern that they may adjust their testimony or be influenced by other witnesses. People must also behave respectfully at a public trial. Weapons are not allowed in the court and people who are disruptive, such as people who interrupt proceedings or attempt to intimidate witnesses, can be escorted out of the court on the order of the judge. People who disturb trials can also be charged and subjected to fines.

Judges may have certain conditions that must be met for a trial to be public.
Judges may have certain conditions that must be met for a trial to be public.

Judges may also decide to clear the court in certain situations. Rape trials are often closed due to concerns about decency and confidentiality for the victim. If there is a credible threat to one or more parties in the trial, the court can also be closed, and juvenile cases are tried in closed sessions for privacy reasons. When judges want to clear the court or close a trial entirely, they must be able to show clear cause. Failure to do so may be considered a breach of the defendant's legal rights and could result in a mistrial.

Because there is often intense public interest in a trial, people may be required to reserve seats at the trial if they wish to attend, and blocks of seats may be held for certain parties, like the family of the defendant. People who wish to attend a public trial should contact the court ahead of time to learn about any restrictions and to confirm the date, time, and location of the trial so they show up in the right place.

Anyone may observe a public trial.
Anyone may observe a public trial.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


Mutsy- The right to a speedy trial in the United States is important because in some other countries you may have to wait years before you see a trial.

In Iran, for example, there were three American hikers that were arrested for espionage according to the Iranian government and the three were jailed for at least one year.

One of the hikers was released on bond and left the country, and a trial date has been set. The other two sit indefinitely in an Iranian prison with no trial date on the horizon.

Their plight has gotten them some free publicity and hopefully with some international pressure they also will be released on bond soon.


Suntan12-I agree with you. I wonder if the attorneys would have tried their case differently if they were not in front of the camera.

I remember there was even commentary on Marcia Clark’s hair style, the prosecutor in the case.

She also changed her hairstyle after the comments were made which really should not have mattered. I think that trials should not be televised on television because trials are not entertainment.

They have people’s lives at stake and should be given the upmost importance.


Subway11-Many felt that it televised proceedings actually took away from the case itself and lessened the importance of the case.

It became a reality show for some which should never be the case. This is why many judges do not allow cameras in the courtroom because the OJ trial became a spectacle.

Those that took the stand became instant celebrities and all of the news commentary shows could not get enough of the daily proceedings.

It really took away from other important cases that did not get the attention that they needed because the American public was obsessed with this trial.


The right to a speedy public trial relates directly to the 6th amendment of the United States Constitution.

Sometimes the right to a public trial actually allows the proceedings to be televised for public viewing.

A perfect example of this was the OJ Simpson trial in which he was accused of murdering his ex-wife and her friend.

There was intense public interest in this case and was therefore televised for the American public to see.

Many people tuned in everyday to find out the latest information on this case and when the verdict was finally read everyone knew what they were doing in that exact moment.

This trial was anything but speedy and it did raise questions regarding the need for such a public display.

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