Near v. Minnesota: Case Brief & Summary

Instructor: Brittany McKenna

Brittany is a licensed attorney who specializes in criminal law, legal writing, and appellate practice and procedure.

In the landmark Near v. Minnesota case, the Supreme Court considered the censorship of newspapers through legislation. This lesson discusses the facts of the famous case, as well as the Supreme Court's analysis and conclusion.

Freedom of the Press

You have probably heard the phrase 'the freedom of the press'. But have you ever thought about what that famous phrase means? Here's a hint: it has nothing to do with dry-cleaning.

Bad jokes aside, is the freedom of the press unlimited? Or must a newspaper or magazine yield to other constitutional interests? In 1931, the Supreme Court of the United States encountered this question in the famous Near v. Minnesota case.

The Questions Presented to the Supreme Court

The First Amendment of the United States Constitution protects free speech. The First Amendment has been traditionally extended to newspapers and magazines to encompass the concept of the freedom of the press. Newspapers exercise the First Amendment right to the freedom of the press through the publication of articles, editorials, and other news stories.

The question that the Supreme Court faced in the Near case was a seemingly straightforward, yet incredible, one: Does a state law prohibiting the publication of certain material violate the First Amendment's freedom of the press?

The Facts of Neal v. Minnesota

In 1937, Minneapolis resident Jay Near began publishing a newspaper that featured disparaging comments about prominent city officials and politicians.

In response to Near's newspaper, legislators passed a law known as the 'Minnesota Gag Law' aimed at silencing publications that caused a 'public nuisance'. The law banned any and all 'malicious, scandalous, and defamatory' publications. Soon after the passage of the Gag Law, a court ordered (through a legal procedure called an injunction) that Near stop publishing his newspaper.

Near appealed the decision all the way to the Supreme Court.

The Holding of the Supreme Court

The Supreme Court concluded that a law banning the publication of 'malicious, scandalous, and defamatory' material violated the First Amendment.

The Analysis of the Supreme Court's Decision

In reaching its decision, the Supreme Court explained that the First Amendment applied to all of the states through the application of the Fourteenth Amendment. Therefore, the Court reasoned that states must respect the First Amendment, and must not enact any laws that violate the freedom of the press.

Based on this rationale, the Supreme Court determined that the Minnesota Gag Law was unconstitutional because it prohibited a newspaper's right to exercise free speech. In other words, the law censored speech in advance by prohibiting newspapers from publishing certain material. This type of censorship is called a prior restraint.

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