Near v. Minnesota
The First Amendment’s protection of a free press dates back to the 1931 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Near v. Minnesota.
The Supreme Court applied the Fourteenth Amendment to the case, making the distinction between First Amendment rights to free speech that applied to the federal government and the Fourteenth, which applied to states. The Supreme Court is the final arbiter regarding the constitutionality of laws passed by state and federal legislators.
A similar case came to light in 1971 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on New York Times v. United States. This case too involved an injunction against newspapers publishing material about public figures, but the injunction claimed that the information published would cause irreparable harm to the country because the information revealed the strategy behind the Vietnam War.
In the late 1920s two men, J. M. Near and Howard Guilford, began publishing a newspaper in Minneapolis, Minnesota, that was highly critical of public officials. One of the officials sued to stop them, saying the newspaper violated public nuisance laws that were aimed specifically at newspapers.
A trial court judge issued a verdict that would prevent the two men from publishing anything, saying that everything they printed was scandalous. The state Supreme Court upheld the state law as constitutional.
After two trials and appeals to the state Supreme Court, the Minnesota law was determined to be unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court because it prevented the men from publishing (a situation called prior restraint). The Court established the precedent that censorship achieved through the use of the state nuisance law was not legal. The Court clarified that prior restraint could only be called upon if a newspaper were to publish sensitive material such as military troop deployment information that might be used by an enemy.