Written by attorney Paul Stanko

Nebraska Press Association v. Stuart, 427 U.S. 539 (1976)

In Nebraska Press Association v. Stuart, 427 U.S. 539 (1976), the United States Supreme Court was confronted by the issue of whether a state trial court could impose prior restraints upon members of the news media in their coverage of a highly-publicized criminal trial and held that the trial court's "gag order" violated the First Amendment's Free Press Clause. In October, 1975, police in a small Nebraska town discovered the bodies of six persons murdered in their home. A suspect was arrested the next morning, and the case attracted widespread news coverage. The county court judge entered a restrictive order due to concerns that the media coverage would make it difficult or impossible to provide a fair trial. The order required members of the media to follow certain guidelines in covering the case. After the defendant was bound over for trial in a district court, Nebraska Press Association intervened and requested that the county court's order be set aside. The district judge entered his own, less restrictive, order which would apply only until the jury was seated and which covered only five specific subjects considered prejudicial to the defendant. This order also required the media to follow press guidelines. On appeal, the state supreme court balanced the presumption that a prior restraint on publication is invalid under the First Amendment against the rights of a criminal defendant to a fair trial under the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments. While limiting further the district court's order, it still held that the district court was justified in enforcing it. Nebraska Press Association sought and was granted review by the U.S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court first considered whether the issue was moot, given that the pretrial gag order had expired upon impaneling the jury. Applying an exception to the general jurisdictional requirement that it decide only "actual" controversies, the Court found that the dispute was "capable of repetition, yet evading review". It then proceeded to consider the prior restraint issue. The Court began by citing earlier highly publicized trials in American history, including the trials of Aaron Burr and Bruno Hauptmann (the Lindbergh kidnapping), as examples of other situations in which trial rights and freedom of the press had come into conflict. This was nothing new, the Court said, although the speed of communications in the modern world has made the problem greater. The Court questioned whether a gag order on media within a trial court's jurisdiction would even be effective in a trial which drew coverage from media outside it's jurisdiction. The Court refused to accept the Petitioner's invitation to give freedom of the press preeminence over fair trial rights. There was no indication that the Framers intended one right to take precedence over another. In this case it was unnecessary to do so. The Court had previously reversed convictions in cases where a trial court had failed to insulate jurors from prejudicial publicity, as in Sheppard v. Maxwell, 384 U.S. 333 (1966). The Court had not previously considered the constitutionality of prior restraint of publication for the purpose of preserving a fair trial, but it had held against such prior restraint in other areas. For example, it held in Near v. Minnesota ex rel. Olson, 283 U.S. 697 (1931), that a state could not prevent publication of allegedly malicious articles. Likewise, in New York Times v. United States, 403 U.S. 713 (1971), the Court dissolved a federal court injunction against publication of the Pentagon Papers, notwithstanding a national security claim by the Government. In this case, the Court found little in the record to show that the trial court had taken steps to ensure a fair trial short of banning media coverage. Moreover, it was unclear that the order would have protected the defendant's rights in any event. Therefore, the Court held that the order violated the First Amendment and reversed the state supreme court's ruling. This case is important because it considers two of the most important rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. It recognizes the importance of an accused criminal defendant's right to trial by an impartial jury. However, it refuses to accept an infringement upon the freedom of the press in a case where other means were available to preserve the defendant's trial rights. High-profile criminal trials have taken place throughout our history, and continue to this day. This case provides guidance to trial judges as they seek to administer justice without violating other important rights.

Additional resources provided by the author

For more information: Hudon, Freedom of the Press versus Fair Trial: The Remedy Lies with the Courts, 1 Val.U.L.Rev. 8 (1966)

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