The Hughes Court (1930–41)

First Amendment

In what famous decision did the Hughes Court protect freedom of the press and prevent prior restraints on expression?

The Hughes Court ruled 5–4 in Near v. Minnesota (1931) that a state law allowing the closing of newspapers as public nuisances for publishing scandalous material violated the First Amendment and amounted to “the essence of censorship.” The case concerned the Saturday Press, a publication owned by Jay Near, which printed several articles alleging that city officials turned a blind eye to crimes committed by Jewish gangsters. Much of the material in the articles was anti-Semitic, such as the following statement:

There have been too many men in this city and especially those in official life, who HAVE been taking orders and suggestions from JEW GANGSTERS, therefore we HAVE Jew Gangsters, practically ruling Minneapolis.

Hennepin County officials objected to the articles and sought to close down the newspaper pursuant to the law that allowed newspapers to be declared public nuisances if they were “malicious, scandalous and defamatory.” Near contended that the statute violated his First Amendment free-press rights. The state courts disagreed but he appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes, writing for the majority, explained that the First Amendment severely limited the ability of government officials to limit publication of newspapers. The proper remedy, if any, was for the government officials to sue the publisher for libel; it was not to silence the publication and prevent it from publishing at all. Hughes noted that any charge of official corruption creates a scandal and would allow the closing of many publications. “The fact that the liberty of the press may be abused by miscreant purveyors of scandal does not make any less necessary the immunity of the press from previous restraint in dealing with official misconduct,” Hughes wrote. “Subsequent punishment for such abuses as may exist is the appropriate remedy, consistent with constitutional privilege.”


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