Near v. Minnesota (1931)

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Near v. Minnesota (1931) is a landmark Supreme Court case revolving around the First Amendment. In this case, the Supreme Court held that prior restraint on publication violated the First Amendment. This holding had a broader impact on free speech generally.

In Near v. Minnesota, a Minnesota public official sued Near, who published “The Saturday Press,” under a Minnesota State statute that allowed for temporary and permanent injunctions against those who created a “public nuisance,” by publishing, selling, or distributing a “malicious, scandalous and defamatory newspaper.” The state court held in favor of the public official and ordered the cessation of “The Saturday Press.” The State’s supreme court affirmed, and Near appealed to the United States Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court reversed the State court holding that prior restraint of the press is unconstitutional. The First Amendment protects citizen’s freedom of speech from the federal government’s censorship. The Supreme Court used the Fourteenth Amendment (doctrine of incorporation) to apply the First Amendment to state governments. The Supreme Court reasoned that the relevant statute allowing prior restraint could lead to a system of complete censorship under the guise of preventing public nuisance. The Minnesota statute required publications to seek official approval before publication by showing “good motives and justifiable ends” for their content, or risk censorship. However, under the First Amendment, even if the liberty of press is abused by miscreant purveyors of scandal, it “does not affect the requirement that the press has immunity from previous restraints when it deals with official misconduct.” Therefore, neither the federal nor any state government could censor publications in advance (with certain exceptions such as wartime). Subsequent punishment for such abuses may be a more appropriate remedy.

[Last updated in July of 2020 by the Wex Definitions Team]