Nebraska Press Association v. Stuart 1976

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Nebraska Press Association v. Stuart 1976

Petitioners: Nebraska Press Association, et al.

Respondents: Judge Hugh Stuart, et al.

Petitioners' Claim: That a court order preventing the media from reporting about a criminal trial violated the First Amendment.

Chief Lawyer for Petitioners: E. Barrett Prettyman, Jr.

Chief Lawyer for Respondents: Harold Mosher, Assistant Attorney General of Nebraska

Justices for the Court: Harry A. Blackmun, William J. Brennan, Jr., Warren E. Burger (writing for the Court), Thurgood Marshall, Lewis F. Powell, Jr., William H. Rehnquist, John Paul Stevens, Potter Stewart, Byron R. White

Justices Dissenting: None

Date of Decision: June 30, 1976

Decision: The court order violated the First Amendment freedom of the press.

Significance: The Court said that in most cases, allowing the media to report criminal trials will not interfere with the defendant's Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial.

Stop the press

On October 19, 1975, Erwin Simants was arrested and charged with murdering six members of the Kellie family in Sutherland, Nebraska. Sutherland was a small rural town with only 850 people.

The Simants case immediately received local, state, and national media coverage. Simants' attorney and the prosecuting attorney asked the Lincoln County Judge to issue a gag order to stop the media from reporting the case. Both attorneys were afraid that newspaper and television coverage would prevent Simants from getting a fair trial.

The county judge issued the gag order. The next day members of the news media, including the Nebraska Press Association, asked the court to remove the gag order. The county court transferred the case to the state district court, where Judge Hugh Stuart heard the case. Judge Stuart issued his own gag order, preventing the media from reporting about a confession Simants made to the police, a note Simants wrote on the night of the murders, and charges that the murders occurred during a sexual attack.

The media appealed to the Nebraska Supreme Court, arguing that the gag order violated the First Amendment freedom of the press. The Nebraska Supreme Court disagreed and approved the gag order with a few changes. The Nebraska Press Association and the rest of the media appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Freedom restored

With a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the gag order violated the freedom of the press. Writing for the Court, Chief Justice Warren E. Burger said that the case involved a conflict between the freedom of the press and Simants' right to a fair trial. Burger's opinion analyzed both interests before making a decision.

The Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects a criminal defendant's right to be tried by an "impartial jury." An impartial jury is one that can hear the case and determine guilt or innocence in a fair manner. States must protect this right under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. (The Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment prevents state and local governments from violating certain rights related to life, freedom, and property.) Justice Burger admitted that press coverage can prevent a defendant from getting a fair trial. If jurors hear about confessions and other evidence through the newspapers and television, they might make up their minds before hearing the case in court, which would violate the Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial.

The First Amendment, however, protects the freedom of the press. States must also obey this freedom under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Justice Burger said that the main reason America adopted the First Amendment was to prevent the government from using prior restraints. A prior restraint happens when the government stops the media from printing or reporting certain information. Prior restraints are the worst kind of violation of the freedom of the press because they prevent the public from learning about public issues. A gag order, for example, is similar to a prior restraint because it stops the public from learning about a criminal trial.

Justice Burger said that the freedom of the press and the right to a fair trial are equally important. In fact, after the media circus surrounding the famous trial of Bruno Hauptmann in 1935, courts developed tools for making sure a defendant gets a fair trial even with media coverage. Courts can transfer cases to other communities or postpone trials until media coverage slows down. Judges can take care to select jurors who have not already made up their minds from press coverage. Judges also can ask the lawyers and court employees not to leak details that are not shared in open court.

Justice Burger said that if cases are handled this way, defendants can get a fair trial and the media can still exercise its right to report what happens in the courtroom. Justice Burger decided that it was not necessary to protect defendants by using gag orders that sacrifice the freedom of the press.

Nebraska Press Association was one of a number of Supreme Court decisions protecting the press's right to cover criminal trials. Five years later in Chandler v. Florida (1981), the Supreme Court approved an experimental program in Florida that allowed television and photograph coverage inside the courtroom. During the 1980s, CourtTV began televising trials to viewers across the nation. With advances in technology, viewers someday may get live trial coverage over the Internet.


G ag orders were one result of media coverage of the Bruno Hauptmann trial in 1935. Hauptmann was charged with the 1932 kidnapping and murder of the twenty–month–old son of Charles A. Lindbergh. In 1927, Lindbergh had become a national hero by being the first person to fly solo in an airplane across the Atlantic Ocean.

Because of Lindbergh's popularity, coverage of the Hauptmann trial in Fleming, New Jersey, became a media circus with a carnival atmosphere. Almost one thousand newspaper and broadcast journalists came to Fleming to cover the trial. To accommodate the press, the telephone company constructed a system large enough to serve a city of one million people. Press coverage attracted thousands of sightseers to Fleming, with the crowd reaching sixty thousand people on Sunday, January 6, 1935.

Hauptmann was convicted and executed for murdering Lindbergh's baby. Hauptmann's wife, however, insisted that her husband was not guilty, and some believe press coverage helped convict an innocent man.

Suggestions for further reading

Evans, J. Edward. Freedom of the Press. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications Company, 1990.

Farish, Leah. The First Amendment: Freedom of Speech, Religion, and the Press. Hillside, NJ: Enslow Publishers, Inc., 1998.

Frost-Knappman, Elizabeth, Edward W. Knappman and Lisa Paddock, eds. Courtroom Drama: 120 of the World's Most Notable Trials. Vol. 2. Detroit: U•X•L, 1998.

Goldman, David J. The Freedom of the Press in America. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications Company, 1967.

Klinker, Philip A. The First Amendment. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Silver Burdett Press, 1991.

Pascoe, Elaine. Freedom of Expression: The Right to Speak Out in America. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 1992.

Schwartz, Bernard. Freedom of the Press. New York: Facts on File, 1992.

Steins, Richard. Censorship: How Does It Conflict with Freedom? New York: Twenty-First Century Books, 1995.

Zeinert, Karen. Free Speech: From Newspapers to Music Lyrics. Hillside, NJ: Enslow Publishers, Inc., 1995.

Zerman, Melvyn B. Taking on the Press: Constitutional Rights in Conflict. New York: Crowell, 1986.

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Nebraska Press Association v. Stuart 1976

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