Near vs. Minnesota
A landmark case upholding freedom of speech
In 1925, the Minnesota legislature passed the Public Nuisance Law, or "Minnesota Gag Law." Its purpose was to silence a rash of scandal sheets, including Duluth's Rip-Saw, the Twin Cities Reporter, published in both Minneapolis and St. Paul, and, especially, the Saturday Press, published in Minneapolis by Howard A. Guilford and Jay M. Near. With their frequent charges of government corruption and their anti-Semitic viewpoints, the publications' editors were characterized as courageous journalists or as notorious bottom-feeders, depending on one's point of view.
Two years later, Hennepin county attorney Floyd B. Olson filed a complaint against Near and Guilford's Saturday Press, asking for a restraining order under the Gag Law. It was granted, and the Minnesota Supreme Court later upheld the decision, ruling that the paper was a scandalous publication and that it constituted a nuisance and endangered safety.
The story might have ended there but for Near's next step, which eventually led him to the U.S. Supreme Court. He wrote to a newly founded New York organization, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Roger Baldwin, the ACLU's founder, gave Near $150 and a pledge to appeal his gag order. "We see in this new device for previous restraint a menace to the whole principle of freedom of the press," the ACLU said.
Near then garnered the support of Robert McCormick, publisher of the Chicago Tribune. The Tribune's lawyer, Weymouth Kirkland, prepared an appeal and argued the first freedom of the press case of prior restraint before the U.S. Supreme Court. On July 31, 1931, the Supreme Court ruled that the Gag Law was unconstitutional.
As Fred W. Friendly wrote in his Minnesota History article (Winter 1978), "Censorship and Journalists' Privilege": "A paragraph of [Chief Justice] Hughes's majority opinion in the Near case is perhaps more relevant now than on that hot June day in 1931 when he read it aloud in the old Supreme Court chamber in the United States Capitol":"The administration of government has become more complex, the opportunities for malfeasance and corruption have multiplied, crime has grown to most serious proportions, and the danger of its protection by criminal alliances and official neglect, emphasize the primary need of a vigilant and courageous press, especially in the great cities. The fact that the liberty of the press may be abused by miscreant purveyors of scandal does not make less necessary the immunity of the press from previous restraint in dealing with official misconduct.'"