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Near v.

Minnesota (1931) Background In 1925 Minnesota passed a law that sought to prevent newspapers, magazines, and other publications from printing obscene, malicious, scandalous and defamatory material. The law, called the “Minnesota gag law,” allowed either public prosecutors or private citizens to request a court injunction to shut down such a publication as “a public nuisance.” The Saturday Press, published by a journalist named Jay Near, had printed articles charging that various criminal activities were controlled by gangsters, and that the local mayor, chief of police, and county attorneys were working in connection with the gangsters. Using the 1925 statute, the county attorney obtained an injunction “perpetually” prohibiting Near from publishing a “malicious, scandalous or defamatory newspaper.” Near appealed to the Minnesota Supreme Court, and when that body ruled in the county’s favor, he appealed to the United States Supreme Court. Constitutional Issue One of the most treasured provisions of the Bill of Rights is the protection of freedom to publish, as provided by the First Amendment. This protection applies to all kinds of publications, even those that print unpopular opinions. Most censorship cases have been attempts to suppress the written word after publication of a work. In the Near v. Minnesota case, however, censorship was attempted before publication by closing down the offending periodical. This attempt was made because Minnesota officials decided that the contents of Near’s periodical would be offensive to the public. In Near v. Minnesota, the Supreme Court had to decide whether Minnesota’s statute violated the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of the press, as applied to the states by the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Court’s Decision The Court voted 5 to 4 in Near’s favor. Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes presented the Court’s opinion. He called the Minnesota statute “unusual, if not unique.” It pitted the undoubted liberty of the press against the “necessarily admitted” authority of the state “to promote the health, safety, morals, and general welfare of its people.” Both the state’s attorney and the liberty of the press, Hughes observed, have claims and limits that must be delineated. Hughes declared: “If we cut through mere details of procedure, the operation and effect of the statute in substance is that public authorities may bring the owner or publisher of a newspaper . . . before a judge upon a charge . . . of publishing scandalous and defamatory matter . . . and unless the owner or publisher is able and disposed to bring competent evidence to satisfy the judge that the charges are true and are published with good motives and for justifiable ends, his newspaper or periodical is suppressed and further publication is made punishable as a contempt. This is of the essence of censorship.” This is not to say, however, that no forms of censorship are to be permitted, Hughes stressed. There are “exceptional cases,” as in times of war, for example, when it may be permitted. Similarly, he wrote, “the primary requirements of decency may be enforced against obscene publications.”

or defamatory material? When. As a class. if at all. After you choose a side. do you think censorship may sometimes be necessary to maintain order? 3. Hughes stressed. Choose to argue for Jay Near or for the state of Minnesota.” The Near case represented a new level of Supreme Court concern for freedom of the press. might it be beneficial for the government to use censorship? . in fact. “we have no occasion to inquire as to the permissible scope of subsequent punishment. . That is. In summary. Choose a side in this case. by his publications. is prior or previous restraint upon the press in unexceptional cases. the claims of the paper were to be proved libelous.“In the present case. Do the benefits of freedom of the press outweigh the effects of hurtful opinions that are printed in newspapers or broadcast on radio or television? 2. to be an infringement of the liberty of the press guaranteed by the First Amendment. . choose sides and debate this issue. Do you experience any kind of censorship at your school? If so. publication. The Court’s decision here did not relate to whether the articles in question were true or false. Should a state have the right to censor printed material if it contains obscene. Hughes wrote. Prior censorship of the press was condemned. malicious. For whatever wrong the appellant [Near] has committed or may commit. the press must generally be held accountable after.” Hughes continued. What was at issue. Questions for Analysis and Debate 1.” Here Hughes was making the point that if. Near was the first case in which a state law was held unconstitutional for violating the freedom of press protected by the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.” The court concluded that this in no way places the press beyond the reach of legal action. the state appropriately affords both public and private redress by its libel laws. another court case would be called for. not before. “For these reasons we hold the statute . On that score. write a list of arguments for your side of the case. the “chief purpose” of the liberty of the press is “to prevent previous restraints upon publication.