Landmark Supreme Court Case: Near v. Minnesota (1931)
Near v. Minnesota (1931) is the 57th landmark Supreme Court case, the fifth in the Speech, Press and Protest module, featured in the KTB Prep American Government and Civics Series designed to acquaint users with the origins, concepts, organizations, and policies of the United States government and political system. The goal is greater familiarization with the rights and obligations of citizenship at the local, state, national, and global levels and the history of our nation as a democracy. While there is overlap, these landmark cases are separated into cases addressing:
- Foreign Policy
- Science & Technology
- Public Safety
- Death Penalty
- Speech, Press, and Protest
- Criminal Justice
- Politics, Society, Freedom, and Equality
The Supreme Court
The Supreme Court is the highest court in the United States. Article III of the U.S. Constitution created the Supreme Court and authorized Congress to pass laws establishing a system of lower courts. The Constitution elaborated neither the exact powers and prerogatives of the Supreme Court nor the organization of the Judicial Branch as a whole. Thus, it has been left to Congress and to the Justices of the Court through their decisions to develop the Federal Judiciary and a body of Federal law.
The number of Justices on the Supreme Court changed six times before settling at the present total of nine in 1869. Since the formation of the Court in 1790, there have been only 17 Chief Justices* and 102 Associate Justices, with Justices serving for an average of 16 years. On average a new Justice joins the Court almost every two years.
The Supreme Court of the United States hears about 100 to 150 appeals of the more than 7,000 cases it is asked to review every year. That means the decisions made by the 12 Circuit Courts of Appeals across the country and the Federal Circuit Court are the last word in thousands of cases.
Court of Appeals
In the federal court system’s present form, 94 district level trial courts and 13 courts of appeals sit below the Supreme Court. The 94 federal judicial districts are organized into 12 regional circuits, each of which has a court of appeals. The appellate court’s task is to determine whether or not the law was applied correctly in the trial court. Appeals courts consist of three judges and do not use a jury.
The appellate courts do not retry cases or hear new evidence. They do not hear witnesses testify. There is no jury. Appellate courts review the procedures and the decisions in the trial court to make sure that the proceedings were fair and that the proper law was applied correctly.
A court of appeals hears challenges to district court decisions from courts located within its circuit, as well as appeals from decisions of federal administrative agencies. In addition, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has nationwide jurisdiction to hear appeals in specialized cases, such as those involving patent laws, and cases decided by the U.S. Court of International Trade and the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.
The nation’s 94 trial courts are called U.S. District Courts. At a trial in a U.S. District Court, witnesses give testimony and a judge or jury decides who is guilty or not guilty — or who is liable or not liable. District courts resolve disputes by determining the facts and applying legal principles to decide who is right.
Trial courts include the district judge who tries the case and a jury that decides the case. Magistrate judges assist district judges in preparing cases for trial. They may also conduct trials in misdemeanor cases.
There is at least one district court in each state, and the District of Columbia. Each district includes a U.S. bankruptcy court as a unit of the district court.
Federal courts have exclusive jurisdiction over bankruptcy cases involving personal, business, or farm bankruptcy. This means a bankruptcy case cannot be filed in state court. Bankruptcy Appellate Panels (BAPs) are 3-judge panels authorized to hear appeals of bankruptcy court decisions. These panels are a unit of the federal courts of appeals, and must be established by that circuit. Five circuits have established panels: First Circuit, Sixth Circuit, Eighth Circuit, Ninth Circuit, and Tenth Circuit.
Near v. Minnesota (1931)
A Minnesota Public Nuisance law provided that any person “engaged in the business” of regularly publishing or circulating an “obscene, lewd, and lascivious” or a “malicious, scandalous and defamatory” newspaper or periodical was guilty of a nuisance, and could be enjoined from further committing or maintaining the nuisance.
In 1927, Jay M. Near, who has been described as “anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic, anti-black, and anti-labor” began publishing The Saturday Press in Minneapolis with Howard A. Guilford, a former mayoral candidate who had been convicted of criminal libel. The paper claimed that Jewish gangs were “practically ruling” the city along with the police chief, Frank W. Brunskill, who was accused of graft. Among the paper’s other targets were mayor George E. Leach, Hennepin County attorney and future three-term governor Floyd B. Olson, and the members of the grand jury of Hennepin County, who, the paper claimed, were either incompetent or willfully failing to investigate and prosecute known criminal activity.
Shortly after the first issue was distributed, Guilford was shot and hospitalized, where a further attempt on his life was made. At least one of the stories printed in The Saturday Press led to a successful prosecution of a gangster called Big Mose Barnett who had intimidated a local dry cleaner by destroying his customers’ clothing.
Minnesota officials sought a permanent injunction against The Saturday Press on the grounds that it violated the Public Nuisance Law because it was malicious, scandalous, and defamatory. The state supreme court upheld both the temporary injunction and the permanent injunction that was eventually issued from the trial court.
Q: Does the Minnesota “gag law” violate the free press provision of the 1st amendment?
A: Yes. Under the Free Press Clause of the First Amendment, and with limited exceptions, government may not censor or prohibit a publication in advance.
5-4 decision ruling a Minnesota law that imposed permanent injunctions against the publication of newspapers with “malicious, scandalous, and defamatory” content violated the First Amendment, as applied to the states by the Fourteenth. The statute authorizing the injunction was facially unconstitutional, meaning the decision was based on an analysis of the law’s general applications, not the specific context of this case. Prior restraint on publication violates freedom of the press as protected under the First Amendment.
Near established as a constitutional principle the doctrine that, with some narrow exceptions, the government could not censor or otherwise prohibit a publication in advance, even though the communication might be punishable after publication in a criminal or other proceeding. In some situations, such as when speech is obscene, incites violence, or reveals military secrets, the government might be able to justify a prior restraint.
Guilford later joined the staff of the Twin City Reporter. He continued to draw the ire of organized crime in Minneapolis and was shot and killed on September 6, 1934.
The Court closed off one of the few outlets remaining to censor the press under Near in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964), which seriously limited the grounds upon which a public official could sue for libel. Statements made regarding their official conduct were only actionable if made with “actual malice”, meaning a knowing or reckless disregard for the truth
It was later a key precedent in New York Times Co. v. United States (1971), in which the Court ruled against the Nixon administration’s attempt to enjoin publication of the Pentagon Papers. Hustler made clear this protection extended beyond merely defamation suits to cover other torts such as intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Next Speech, Press, and Protest Case: De Jonge v. Oregon (1937)
Previous Speech, Press and Protest Case: Whitney v. California (1927)
Next Case: Powell v. Alabama (1932)
Previous Case: JW Hampton v. U.S. (1928)