There are many landmark cases that deal with the right to information and freedom of the press, two very important issues that go hand in hand within the United States especially as the digital age infiltrates our lives ever more increasingly. For the purposes of this essay, I chose to write about the Supreme Court Cases involving the First Amendment that states: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
(First Amendment, 1868) Some of the cases involved in this issue are Near v. Minnesota (1931), The New York Times Co. v. United States (1971), Miami Herald Publishing Co. v. Tornillo (1974), Nebraska Press Association v. Stuart (1976), and several other cases. All of these cases, to some degree, display the progression of laws that led to the freedom of the press that we now have in the United States.
The purpose of drawing on these court cases is the fact that they have helped to shape and protect First Amendment rights of the press and individuals, allowing the press to print information that may not be wholly positive when describing public officials or politics. The first case under examination is the case of Near v. Minnesota (1931). The Supreme Court likened those who published, distributed or sold “malicious, scandalous and defamatory” newspapers were as much of a nuisance as “places where intoxicating liquor is illegally sold, houses of prostitution, dogs, malicious fences, itinerant carnivals, lotteries, and noxious weeds”.
The case was initially caused by a series of articles written by “The Saturday Press” in Minneapolis, Minnesota. These articles stated that Jewish gangsters were in control of: Gambling, bootlegging and racketeering in Minneapolis, and that law enforcing officers…were not energetically performing their duties. Most charges were directed against the Chief of Police; he was charged with gross neglect of duty, illicit relations with gangsters, and with participation in graft. (Near v.
Minnesota, 1931) The articles also targeted the mayor, George E. Leach, the Hennepin County attorney and the future governor, Floyd B. Olson as well as members of the grand jury of Hennepin County. The paper charged these men with incompetence and against blatantly disregarding and failing to prosecute the illegal activities. Although the courts first ruled against “The Saturday Press,” in stating that the periodical was a public nuisance under the “Public Nuisance Law of 1925.
” and further charged the defendants against “producing, editing, publishing, circulating, having in their possession, selling or giving any away publication which is malicious, scandalous or defamatory…as defined by law” (Near v. Minnesota, 1931), they later amended their decision in favor of the publication, stating that the original court decision was unconstitutional and that, the United States federal government protects the rights of free press even if the state law held that publications were in any way defamatory.
Thus, the federal government was able to overrule the state government and overturn the court decision, laying the groundwork for further “freedom of press” cases. As stated during the case: For these reasons we hold the statute, so far as it authorized the proceedings in this action under clause (b)  of section one, to be an infringement of the liberty of the press guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.
We should add that this decision rests upon the operation and effect of the statute, without regard to the question of the truth of the charges contained in the particular periodical. The fact that the public officers named in this case, and those associated with the charges of official dereliction, may be deemed to be impeccable cannot affect the conclusion that the statute imposes an unconstitutional restraint upon publication. (Near v.
Minnesota, 1931) The reason that the case cited that the original decision was unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment was due to the fact that while the First Amendment protects freedom of speech, the Fourteenth Amendment states that “no state can deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws (Fourteenth Amendment, 1868).
In effect, this means that while the First Amendment protects personal freedoms, as does the Fourteenth Amendment, the latter also incorporates the congress and the federal government and does not simply apply to states’ protection under the law, thus making the case universal throughout the United States. This law later paved the way for protection from the government in the case of The New York Times Co. v. United States, 1971.
On the timeline of freedom of the press and national security, one cannot help but acknowledge the case of The New York Times v. United States. A landmark case that took place in 1971, President Nixon himself attempted to claim “executive authority” to compel the Times to withhold classified information they intended to publish, most notably, the “Pentagon Papers,” which were a top secret Department of Defense history of the U. S. involvement in Vietnam dating from 1945 to 1967.
After attempting to secure an injunction against the Times, President Nixon stated the paper was guilty of felony treason under the Espionage Act of 1917 and had no right to publish classified documents. However, once brought to trial, the United States government found in favor of The New York Times, allowing them to print the “Pentagon Papers. ” One of the main reasons for allowing the printing of these documents was due to the fact that the Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment was being violated. As stated by Justice Black:
The Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors. The Government’s power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the Government and…was protected so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the people. Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government. (Bingham, 163 ) Unfortunately, this is exactly what President Nixon was trying to accomplish.
He was trying to serve himself and his compatriots by covering up information regarding the Vietnam war and the events leading up to it, which, at the time, was still immensely important to the American people. The New York Magazine succinctly stated in their August 16th issue in 1971 “the American press has yet to acknowledge another lesson of the Pentagon Papers. Still unpublished portions…trace a picture of Administration officials making calculated use of the media to get their views in print and thus “sell” Vietnam policy” (Pincus, 46). What’s horribly disheartening is that Walter Pincus was absolutely right.
President Nixon did everything he could, including attempting to charge the editors of The New York Times with treason, in order to keep them from releasing information that was personally and politically damaging to himself but was information that was invaluable to the American public and information that Americans had a right to know. The purpose of the freedom of the press is basically, to keep our country honest. This means that, in order for our country to function as was originally intended, Americans must constantly question those in power. This conviction goes back to the Declaration of Independence, in which the Founders stated,
That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundations on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness…But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new guards for their future security.
(Declaration of Independence, 1776) In other words, it is the duty of United States citizens to question the authority of their government. However, how can the citizens of the United States understand the full picture of what is happening in their own country if information is constantly being withheld and skewed due to the fact that injunctions are being held against those who would print the truth, even if it showed our leaders in a less than flattering light?
Such actions by our leaders should never be borne if we are to uphold our constitutional rights to freedom of press and speech. Another case that brought our political rights into light was the Supreme Court decision of Miami Herald Publishing Co. v. Tornillo. The case was regarding the rights of the Miami Herald Publishing Company.
When the newspaper refused to print replies to editorials which were critical of a candidate running for Florida state office a suit was brought in Florida Circuit Court seeking injunctive and declaratory relief and damages, based on Florida’s “right of reply” statute that grants a political candidate a right to equal space to answer criticism and attacks on his record by a newspaper, and making it a misdemeanor for the newspaper to fail to comply.
The Circuit Court held the statute unconstitutional as in breach of the freedom of the press, and dismissed the action brought by the candidate. The Florida Supreme Court reversed the Circuit Court’s decision, holding that the “right of reply” statute did not violate constitutional guarantees, and that civil remedies, including damages, were available, and remanded to the trial court for further proceedings at the Supreme Court level.
When the case was completed, it was held that the “right of reply” statute was unconstitutional as it violated the First Amendment’s guarantee of free press and because it is an intrusion into the function of the editors in choosing what material goes into a newspaper as well as the subject matter and treatment of public issues as well as public officials, and that government can not compel a newspaper or media provider to distribute information regarding such matters (Miami Herald Publishing Co. v. Tornillo, 1974).
This issue, while addressing freedom of the press also includes something that we, as Americans, are beginning to value now more than ever before. As a voter and an American citizen, it is acceptable that certain newspapers have certain viewpoints and bias, as this is the nature of free press, however, when the government becomes involved with what information may or may not be released “for the good of the American people,” then it is obvious that Americans have become little more than sheep being herded by the government towards the decisions that they are encouraged to make with what little information that they have.
It is a citizen’s duty to fight for freedom of information and freedom of speech and of press, which are invaluable in a world where information becomes more important every day and guides our daily decisions. The final case law I wish to explore is that of Nebraska Press Association v.
Stuart in which a judge attempted to issue a gag order on a widely publicized murder trial in the hopes that this would protect the defendant’s right to a fair trial. The trial of Erwin Simants was for that of murder of a family of six people. Shortly after Simants was arrested for the murder, the media, including national as well as regional and local began to report on the story.
The judge as well as the prosecuting lawyer concerned that if certain details, such as the fact that Simants’ detailed confession, were made public, it would interfere with Simants’ constitutional right to a fair trial and therefore, the judge issued a gag order, until the selection of the jury, forbidding the media from reporting details about the trial or any details regarding the confession of the defendant, a note that the defendant wrote on the night of the murders and aspects of medical testimony which would be detrimental to the defendants’ constitutional rights.
Citing The New York Times v. United States, the Nebraska Supreme Court stated that the gag order was necessary because it must be weighed against the importance of the person’s right to a fair trial by an impartial jury and that enough publicity was surrounding the case to disallow the defendant from receiving a fair trial. Although the Supreme Court ruled on the case after the jury had been selected, they stated that cases such as Irvin v. Dowd (1961), Rideau v. Louisiana (1963), Estes v. Texas (1965), and Sheppard v.
Maxwell (1977) all displayed the fact that while pretrial publicity had been prevalent; it had not led to a defendant’s unfair trial. They, therefore, reversed the ruling of the Nebraska Court stating that the gag rule to be a denial of the news media’s rights under the First Amendment, freedom of the press. They also further insisted that media coverage may even protect defendants against miscarriages of justice by the distribution of extensive details regarding the case, rather than being secretive and disallowing citizens from knowing what is going on in their local courts (Nebraska Press Association v.
Stuart, 1976). As displayed in the court cases above, the right to freedom of the press has come quite a long way since its inception. And, thankfully, our federal government has backed us fully, through it’s favoring of cases that were deemed constitutional by our state laws but were actually unconstitutional under federal law. Without freedom of press, our country would be a vastly different place and we would be far less informed about our community and our country in general. References Bingham, Colin. (1982). Wit and wisdom: a public affairs miscellany.
Carlton: Hedges & Bell, Maryborough. This book was interesting in that it had several quotes regarding freedom of the press as well as the Pentagon Papers and the New York Times Supreme Court case. It’s filled with quotes of “wit and wisdom” and had quotes from several Supreme Court justices. While it did not provide a great deal of information, it had some interesting quotes. “First Amendment. ” The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. 2008. The First Amendment is the main cause of the issues cited in this essay.
Without the First Amendment which protects free speech and free press, these court cases would never have been won or overturned and the government would have a much greater amount of control over our press and the freedom of our information. “Fourteenth Amendment. ” The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. 2008. The Fourteenth Amendment was very helpful in regards to setting precedent by the federal government and Supreme Court because this law basically overruled state’s rights in favor of federal law, stating that the federal government could overrule a state’s constitution in order to protect free speech.
Miami Herald Publishing Co. v. Tornillo. 418 U. S. 241 (1974). This Supreme Court Case was essential in valuing the rights of the individual newspaper publishers as it allowed newspapers to print their own opinions and therefore did not have to reconcile with the “right to respond” statute previously enacted in Florida. Again, a landmark case because the Supreme Court overruled state’s rights in regards to freedom of press.