Nebraska Press Association v. Stuart

Nebraska Press Association v. Stuart
Nebraska Press Association v. Stuart
Seal of the United States Supreme Court.svg
Supreme Court of the United States
Argued April 19, 1976
Decided June 30, 1976
Full case name Nebraska Press Association v. Judge Hugh Stuart
The implementation of a prior restraint would not serve the accused rights.
Court membership
Case opinions
Majority Burger, joined by Blackmun, Rehnquist
Concurrence Brennan, joined by Stewart, Marshall
Concurrence White
Concurrence Powell
Concurrence Stevens
Laws applied
U.S. Const. amend. I

Nebraska Press Association v. Stuart, 427 U.S. 539 (1976), was a landmark Supreme Court of the United States decision in which the Court held unconstitutional prior restraints on media coverage during criminal trials.



Nebraska Press Association v. Stuart involved a debate over whether or not the press may be prevented from releasing through publication information which was seen to be "implicative of guilt" related to the defendant.[1][2] The 1971 ruling in the Supreme Court case New York Times Co. v. United States formulated the principle that the concept of prior restraint is largely unconstitutional.[2] The case also put forth the opinion that it is the duty of the government to satisfy an extreme explanation in order to satisfy usage of prior restraint against the press.[2] Prior to the 1976 ruling by the Supreme Court, lower courts in the United States had initiated a practice of barring intense levels of reporting on certain issues in criminal matters; media coverage of such rulings referred to them as gag orders.[3][2]

Prior litigation

In relation to a sexual assault in 1975 in Sutherland, Nebraska, six people in a family were killed.[3][2] Police discovered the bodies of the six individuals from the family of Henry Kellie on October 18, 1975.[4] At the time of the incident there were 850 residents living in Sutherland, Nebraska.[4] After the defendant Erwin Charles Simants was detained by law enforcement, there was a high level of media coverage of the criminal justice proceedings.[3] Police talked to media who had traveled to the location of the incident, and informed them of descriptive characteristics of the suspect.[5] After surrendering to the police,[6] Simants had an arraignment in Lincoln County Court in Lincoln County, Nebraska on October 19, 1975.[5]

Both the attorney for the defendant, in addition to the prosecutor handling the case, requested the state court system in Nebraska to reduce the intensity of the reporting on the incident due to a concern over neutral jury selection.[3][5] Simants had given law enforcement a confession during the course of the case.[3] After the requests by the attorneys for the defense and the prosecution, the County Court (subsequently affirmed and changed by the Nebraska Supreme Court)[5] ruled media coverage would be barred from information "strongly implicative" of the defendant, in addition to the confession.[3][2] The ruling by the court took into account the Nebraska Bar-Press Guidelines.[7] After a challenge of the ruling by a group of representatives of the press, the trial court judge in the case declined to remove the order, writing, "because of the nature of the crimes charged in the complaint that there is a clear and present danger that pre-trial publicity could impinge upon the defendant's right to a fair trial."[7]


Chief Justice of the United States Warren E. Burger wrote the opinion of the court.[3] Burger wrote, "prior restraints on speech and publication are the most serious and least tolerable infringement on First Amendment Rights."[3] The court ruled this was particularly at issue when dealing with "communication of news and commentary on current events."[7] According to the ruling, it was inappropriate to bar media reporting on a criminal case prior to the trial itself, except in matters where a "clear and present danger" existed that would impede the process of a fair trial.[3] The court characterized the press as "the handmaiden of effective judicial administration, especially in the criminal" process.[7]

Burger noted, "The press does not simply publish information about trials but guards against the miscarriage of justice by subjecting the police, prosecutors, and judicial processes to extensive public scrutiny and criticism."[7] The court commented on the action of the trial court's order, which had delayed the release of information from the press to the public, writing that prompt reporting is needed if "press coverage is to fulfill its traditional function of bringing news to the public promptly".[7] The decision questioned whether or not it was allowable for the role of government to "insinuate itself into the editorial rooms of this Nation's press".[7]

The court noted that the trial court in the case could have availed itself of other means in order to ensure the process of a fair trial, including: moving the location of the trial to a "a place less exposed to the intense publicity", delaying the criminal proceedings until after media attention had died down, querying jurors to make certain they are impartial, issue instructions to the jury telling them to only consider the evidence presented in the trial, and sequester the jury during the proceedings.[7] Burger critically analyzed whether the trial court would even be able to maintain the status of its prior restraint order, external to its specific jurisdictional locale.[7] The court compared the potential harm of press reporting versus the alternative in its absence – rumors spread among individuals in the town, "One can only speculate on the accuracy of such reports, given the generative propensities of such rumors, they could well be more damaging than reasonably accurate news accounts."[7] The court concluded, "But plainly a whole community cannot be restrained from discussing a subject intimately affecting life within it."[8]


In their 2006 work Contemporary Supreme Court Cases: Landmark Decisions Since Roe v. Wade, authors Donald E. Lively and Russell L. Weaver wrote, "Nebraska Press is an important decision because it reaffirms the nation's commitment to free speech, and the general impermissibility of prior restraints."[8] Lively and Weaver concluded, "While the Court was sensitive to the important governmental interest in ensuring that criminal defendants receive fair trials, untainted by the threat of excessive and prejudicial publicity, the Court concluded that a trial court has other means, besides prior restraints, for ensuring the right to a fair trial."[8]

Anthony Lewis commented on the outcome of the case, in his 2007 book Freedom for the Thought That We Hate: A Biography of the First Amendment, writing: "... Nebraska Press Association v. Stuart, was a great victory for the press. If a bar on publishing a confession was wrong in so aggravated a situation — a gruesome multiple murder in a small town — it was hard to see when one would be permissible."[9] Lewis noted, "And in fact, none was sustained on appeal after that."[9] Paul Siegel noted in his 2007 book Cases in Communication Law, "There is an unavoidable tension between jurors' argued privacy rights and the right of the accused to be judged by impartial peers."[10] Siegel pointed out, "Chief Justice Burger emphasizes that the juror selection process has traditionally been considered a public event and that this opennesss serves important societal functions."[10]

See also


  1. ^ Lewis 2007, p. 173.
  2. ^ a b c d e f Lively 2006, p. 130.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i Lewis 2007, p. 174.
  4. ^ a b Siegel 2007, p. 165.
  5. ^ a b c d Siegel 2007, p. 166.
  6. ^ Graham, Frank (1/6/2009). "Simants retains privilege of supervised outings". North Platt Bulletin. Retrieved 22 June 2011. 
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Lively 2006, p. 131.
  8. ^ a b c Lively 2006, p. 132.
  9. ^ a b Lewis.
  10. ^ a b Siegel 2007, p. 174.


  • Lewis, Anthony (2007). Freedom for the Thought That We Hate: A Biography of the First Amendment. Basic Books. pp. 173–176. ISBN 9780465039173. OCLC 173659591. 
  • Lively, Donald E.; Russell L. Weaver (2006). Contemporary Supreme Court Cases: Landmark Decisions Since Roe v. Wade. Greenwood. pp. 129–132. ISBN 9780313335143. 
  • Siegel, Paul (2007). Cases in Communication Law. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.; 2 edition. pp. 164–171. ISBN 9780742555853. 

External links

  • Text of Nebraska Press Association v. Stuart, 427 U.S. 539 (1976) is available from: Justia · Findlaw

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