Freedom of Expression in the United States

The Doctrine of Prior Restraint

"[L]iberty of the press, historically considered and taken up by the Federal Constitution, has meant, principally although not exclusively, immunity from previous restraints or censorship."43

"Any system of prior restraints of expression comes to this Court bearing a heavy presumption against its constitutional validity."44 Government "thus carries a heavy burden of showing justification for the imposition of such a restraint."45 Under the English licensing system, which expired in 1695, all printing presses and printers were licensed and nothing could be published without prior approval of the state or church authorities. The great struggle for liberty of the press was for the right to publish without a license that which for a long time could be published only with a license.46

The United States Supreme Court's first encounter with a law imposing a prior restraint came in Near v. Minnesota ex rel. Olson,47 in which a five-to-four majority voided a law authorizing the permanent enjoining of future violations by any newspaper or periodical once found to have published or circulated an "obscene, lewd and lascivious" or a "malicious, scandalous and defamatory" issue. An injunction had been issued after the newspaper in question had printed a series of articles tying local officials to gangsters. While the dissenters maintained that the injunction constituted no prior restraint, inasmuch as that doctrine applied to prohibitions of publication without advance approval of an executive official,48 the majority deemed the difference of no consequence, since in order to avoid a contempt citation the newspaper would have to clear future publications in advance with the judge.49 Liberty of the press to scrutinize closely the conduct of public affairs was essential, said Chief Justice Hughes for the Court.

"[T]he 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 unfaithful officials and of the impairment of the fundamental security of life and property by criminal alliances and official neglect, emphasizes the primary need of a vigilant and courageous press, especially in great cities. The fact that the liberty of the press may be abused by miscreant purveyors of scandal does not make any the less necessary the immunity of the press from previous restraint in dealing with official misconduct. Subsequent punishment for such abuses as may exist is the appropriate remedy, consistent with constitutional privilege."50

The Court did not undertake to explore the kinds of restrictions to which the term "prior restraint" would apply nor to do more than assert that only in "exceptional circumstances" would prior restraint be permissible.51 Nor did subsequent cases substantially illuminate the murky interior of the doctrine. The doctrine of prior restraint was called upon by the Court as it struck down a series of loosely drawn statutes and ordinances requiring licenses to hold meetings and parades and to distribute literature, with uncontrolled discretion in the licensor whether or not to issue them, and as it voided other restrictions on First Amendment rights.52 The doctrine that generally emerged was that permit systems--prior licensing, if you will--were constitutionally valid so long as the discretion of the issuing official was limited to questions of times, places, and manners.53 The most recent Court encounter with the doctrine in the national security area occurred when the Government attempted to enjoin press publication of classified documents pertaining to the Vietnam War 54 and, although the Court rejected the effort, at least five and perhaps six Justices concurred on principle that in some circumstances prior restraint of publication would be constitutional.55 But no cohesive doctrine relating to the subject, its applications, and its exceptions has yet emerged.

Injunctions and the Press in Fair Trial Cases.--Confronting a claimed conflict between free press and fair trial guarantees, the Court unanimously set aside a state court injunction barring the publication of information that might prejudice the subsequent trial of a criminal defendant.56 Though agreed on result, the Justices were divided with respect to whether "gag orders" were ever permissible and if so what the standards for imposing them were. The opinion of the Court utilized the Learned Hand formulation of the "clear and present danger" test 57 and considered as factors in any decision on the imposition of a restraint upon press reporters (a) the nature and extent of pretrial news coverage, (b) whether other measures were likely to mitigate the harm, and (c) how effectively a restraining order would operate to prevent the threatened danger.58 One seeking a restraining order would have a heavy burden to meet to justify such an action, a burden that could be satisfied only on a showing that with a prior restraint a fair trial would be denied, but the Chief Justice refused to rule out the possibility of showing the kind of threat that would possess the degree of certainty to justify restraints.59 Justice Brennan's major concurring opinion flatly took the position that such restraining orders were never permissible. Commentary and reporting on the criminal justice system is at the core of First Amendment values, he would hold, and secrecy can do so much harm "that there can be no prohibition on the publication by the press of any information pertaining to pending judicial proceedings or the operation of the criminal justice system, no matter how shabby the means by which the information is obtained."60 The extremely narrow exceptions under which prior restraints might be permissible relate to probable national harm resulting from publication, the Justice continued; because the trial court could adequately protect a defendant's right to a fair trial through other means even if there were conflict of constitutional rights the possibility of damage to the fair trail right would be so speculative that the burden of justification could not be met.61 While the result does not foreclose the possibility of future "gag orders," it does lessen the number to be expected and shifts the focus to other alternatives for protecting trial rights.62 On a different level, however, are orders restraining the press as a party to litigation in the dissemination of information obtained through pretrial discovery. In Seattle Times Co. v. Rhinehart,63 the Court determined that such orders protecting parties from abuses of discovery require "no heightened First Amendment scrutiny."64

Obscenity and Prior Restraint.--Only in the obscenity area has there emerged a substantial consideration of the doctrine of prior restraint and the doctrine's use there may be based upon the proposition that obscenity is not a protected form of expression.65 In Kingsley Books v. Brown,66 the Court upheld a state statute which, while it embodied some features of prior restraint, was seen as having little more restraining effect than an ordinary criminal statute; that is, the law's penalties applied only after publication. But in Times Film Corp. v. City of Chicago,67 a divided Court specifically affirmed that, at least in the case of motion pictures, the First Amendment did not proscribe a licensing system under which a board of censors could refuse to license for public exhibition films which it found to be obscene. Books and periodicals may also be subjected to some forms of prior restraint,68 but the thrust of the Court's opinions in this area with regard to all forms of communication has been to establish strict standards of procedural protections to ensure that the censoring agency bears the burden of proof on obscenity, that only a judicial order can restrain exhibition, and that a prompt final judicial decision is assured.69

Source: Congressional Research Service - The Constitution of the United States of America: Analysis and Interpretation


43 Near v. Minnesota ex rel. Olson, 283 U.S. 697, 716 (1931).

44 Bantam Books v. Sullivan, 372 U.S. 58, 70 (1963).

45 Organization for a Better Austin v. Keefe, 402 U.S. 415, 419 (1971); New York Times Co. v. United States, 403 U.S. 713, 714 (1971).

46 Near v. Minnesota ex rel. Olson, 283 U.S. 697, 713-14 (1931): Lovell v. Griffin, 303 U.S. 444, 451 (1938).

47 283 U.S. 697 (1931).

48 Id. at 723, 733-36 (Justice Butler dissenting).

49 Id. at 712-13.

50 Id. at 719-20.

51 Id. at 715-16.

52 E.g., Lovell v. Griffin, 303 U.S. 444 (1938); Cantwell v. Connecticut, 310 U.S. 296 (1940); Kunz v. New York, 340 U.S. 290 (1951); Niemotko v. Maryland, 340 U.S. 268 (1951); Staub v. City of Baxley, 355 U.S. 313 (1958). For other applications, see Grosjean v. American Press Co., 297 U.S. 233 (1936); Murdock v. Pennsylvania, 319 U.S. 105 (1943); Follett v. McCormick, 321 U.S. 573 (1944).

53 Cox v. New Hampshire, 312 U.S. 569 (1941); Poulos v. New Hampshire, 345 U.S. 395 (1953). In Carroll v. President & Comm'rs of Princess Anne, 393 U.S. 175 (1968), the Court held invalid the issuance of an ex parte injunction to restrain the holding of a protest meeting, holding that usually notice must be given the parties to be restrained and an opportunity for them to rebut the contentions presented to justify the sought-for restraint. In Organization for a Better Austin v. Keefe, 402 U.S. 415 (1971), the Court held invalid as a prior restraint an injunction preventing the petitioners from distributing 18,000 pamphlets attacking respondent's alleged "blockbusting" real estate activities; he was held not to have borne the "heavy burden" of justifying the restraint.

"No prior decisions support the claim that the interest of an individual in being free from public criticism of his business practices in pamphlets or leaflets warrants use of the injunctive power of a court. Designating the conduct as an invasion of privacy . . . is not sufficient to support an injunction against peaceful distribution of informational literature of the nature revealed by this record."

Id. at 419-20. See also City of Lakewood v. Plain Dealer Publishing Co., 486 U.S. 750 (1988) (ordinance vesting in the mayor unbridled discretion to grant or deny annual permit for location of newsracks on public property is facially invalid as prior restraint).

The necessity of immediate appellate review of orders restraining the exercise of First Amendment rights was strongly emphasized in National Socialist Party v. Village of Skokie, 432 U.S. 43 (1977), and seems to explain the Court's action in Philadelphia Newspapers v. Jerome, 434 U.S. 241 (1978). But see Moreland v. Sprecher, 443 U.S. 709 (1979) (party can relinquish right to expedited review through failure to properly request it).

54 New York Times Co. v. United States, 403 U.S. 713 (1971). The vote was six to three, with Justices Black, Douglas, Brennan, Stewart, White, and Marshall in the majority and Chief Justice Burger and Justices Harlan and Blackmun in the minority. Each Justice issued an opinion.

55 The three dissenters thought such restraint appropriate in this case. Id. at 748, 752, 759. Justice Stewart thought restraint would be proper if disclosure "will surely result in direct, immediate, and irreparable damage to our Nation or its people," id. at 730, while Justice White did not endorse any specific phrasing of a standard. Id. at 730-733. Justice Brennan would preclude even interim restraint except upon "governmental allegation and proof that publication must inevitably, directly, and immediately cause the occurrence of an event kindred to imperiling the safety of a transport already at sea." Id. at 712-13.

The same issues were raised in United States v. Progressive, Inc., 467 F. Supp. 990 (W.D.Wis. 1979), in which the United States obtained an injunction prohibiting publication of an article it claimed would reveal information about nuclear weapons, thus increasing the dangers of nuclear proliferation. The injunction was lifted when the same information was published elsewhere and thus no appellate review was had of the order.

With respect to the right of the Central Intelligence Agency to prepublication review of the writings of former agents and its enforcement through contractual relationships, see Snepp v. United States, 444 U.S. 507 (1980); Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. v. Colby, 509 F.2d 1362 (4th Cir.), cert. denied, 421 U.S. 992 (1975); United States v. Marchetti, 446 F.2d 1309 (4th Cir.), cert. denied, 409 U.S. 1063 (1972).

56 Nebraska Press Ass'n. v. Stuart, 427 U.S. 539 (1976).

57 Id. at 562, quoting Dennis v. United States, 183 F.2d 201, 212 (2d Cir. 1950), aff'd., 341 U.S. 494, 510 (1951).

58 Nebraska Press Ass'n v. Stuart, 427 U.S. 539, 562 (1976) (opinion of Chief Justice Burger, concurred in by Justices Blackmun and Rehnquist, and, also writing brief concurrences, Justices White and Powell). Applying the tests, the Chief Justice agreed that (a) there was intense and pervasive pretrial publicity and more could be expected, but that (b) the lower courts had made little effort to assess the prospects of other methods of preventing or mitigating the effects of such publicity and that (c) in any event the restraining order was unlikely to have the desired effect of protecting the defendant's rights. Id. at 562-67.

59 The Court differentiated between two kinds of information, however: (1) reporting on judicial proceedings held in public, which has "special" protection and requires a much higher justification than (2) reporting of information gained from other sources as to which the burden of justifying restraint is still high. Id. at 567-68, 570. See also Oklahoma Pub. Co. v. District Court, 430 U.S. 308 (1977) (setting aside injunction restraining news media from publishing name of juvenile involved in pending proceeding when name has been learned at open detention hearing that could have been closed but was not); Smith v. Daily Mail Pub. Co., 433 U.S. 97 (1979).

60 Id. at 572, 588. Justices Stewart and Marshall joined this opinion and Justice Stevens noted his general agreement except that he reserved decision in particularly egregious situations, even though stating that he might well agree with Justice Brennan there also. Id. at 617. Justice White, while joining the opinion of the Court, noted that he had grave doubts that "gag orders" could ever be justified but he would refrain from so declaring in the Court's first case on the issue. Id. at 570.

61 Id. at 588-95.

62 One such alternative is the banning of communication with the press on trial issues by prosecution and defense attorneys, police officials, and court officers. This, of course, also raises First Amendment issues. See, e.g., Chicago Council of Lawyers v. Bauer, 522 F. 2d 242 (7th Cir. 1975), cert. denied, 427 U.S. 912 (1976).

63 467 U.S. 20 (1984).

64 467 U.S. at 36. The decision was unanimous, all other Justices joining Justice Powell's opinion for the Court, but with Justices Brennan and Marshall noting additionally that under the facts of the case important interests in privacy and religious freedom were being protected. Id. at 37, 38.

65 Infra, pp.1149-59.

66 354 U.S. 436 (1957). See also Bantam Books v. Sullivan, 372 U.S. 58 (1963).

67 365 U.S. 43 (1961). See also Young v. American Mini Theatres, 427 U.S. 50 (1976) (zoning ordinance prescribing distances adult theaters may be located from residential areas and other theaters is not an impermissible prior restraint).

68 Cf. Kingsley Books v. Brown, 354 U.S. 436 (1957).

69 Freedman v. Maryland, 380 U.S. 51 (1965); Teitel Film Corp. v. Cusack, 390 U.S. 139 (1968); Interstate Circuit v. City of Dallas, 390 U.S. 676 (1968); Blount v. Rizzi, 400 U.S. 410 (1971); United States v. Thirty-seven Photographs, 402 U.S. 363, 367-375 (1971); Southeastern Promotions v. Conrad, 420 U.S. 546 (1975); Erznoznik v. City of Jacksonville, 422 U.S. 205 (1975); FW/PBS, Inc. v. City of Dallas, 493 U.S. 215 (1990) (ordinance requiring licensing of "sexually oriented business" places no time limit on approval by inspection agencies and fails to provide an avenue for prompt judicial review); Fort Wayne Books, Inc. v. Indiana, 489 U.S. 46 (1989) (seizure of books and films based on ex parte probable cause hearing under state RICO law's forfeiture procedures constitutes invalid prior restraint; instead, there must be a determination in an adversarial proceeding that the materials are obscene or that a RICO violation has occurred).