Key U.S. Supreme Court Cases:

Ten Most Important Court

Cases for Journalists*


1. The Pentagon Papers: New York Times Co. vs. United States (1971)

The U.S. government under President Nixon issued a temporary injunction ordering the New York Times not to publish the documents about the Viet Nam War, claiming it would endanger national security. The Times appealed, arguing that prior restraint (an order not to print information before it's actually printed) violated the First Amendment.

The Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in favor of the New York Times. The majority of the court recognized the need to find a balance between the right to a free press and the need for the government to protect national security.

2. A Case for Libel: Gertz vs. Robert Welch, Inc. (1974)

Robert Welch, Inc., publisher of American Opinion, a magazine that spread the views of the ultraconservative John Birch Society, warned that Communist sympathizers were trying to frame police officers. An article about Gertz, an officer who was considered a private person, contained several damaging factual misstatements.

The Court ruled 5-4 that a private person, who is more vulnerable to injury, doesn't have to show actual malice in order to prove libel. The Court reasoned that public officials and public figures are in a better position to counteract false statements.

3. Defamation Clarified: Curtis Publishing v. Butts (1966)

Two cases originating on Southern college campuses came before the Supreme Court in the early 1960s

In one case, the Saturday Evening Post, published by Curtis Publishing Company, ran an article accusing Wally Butts, then-athletic director for the University of Georgia, of conspiring to fix a 1962 football game between Georgia and the University of Alabama. The article claimed that Butts gave Georgia's plays to Alabama coach Paul "Bear" Bryant. Butts sued for defamation, and a trial court ruled in his favor. Soon after the court's ruling in Times vs. Sullivan (below), Curtis moved for a new trial because the actual malice standard from that case wasn't applied. But in this case Curtis wasn't an elected public official.

In its 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court agreed to extend the reach of the Sullivan verdict to include public figures like national politicians, business tycoons and celebrities.

4. Freedom of Speech Further Defined: New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964)

During the turbulent days of the early 1960s, a full-page ad appeared in the New York Times that claimed the arrest of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. for perjury in Montgomery, Ala., was part of a campaign to destroy King's efforts to integrate public facilities and encourage blacks to vote. In response, Montgomery city commissioner L.B. Sullivan filed a libel action against the newspaper.

The Court held that the First Amendment protects the publication of all statements -- even those later proven false -- unless they're made with actual malice, or knowledge that they're false or reckless. The Court dismissed Sullivan's case and established that publicly elected officials must prove an actual intent to harm in cases of libel or defamation.

5. Cameras in the Courtroom: Chandler v. Florida (1981)

A Miami Beach jury convicted two men of conspiracy to commit burglary, grand larceny and possession of burglary tools after breaking into a popular local restaurant. The two men were Miami Beach police officers. The officers objected to the media presence, claiming the attention would make a fair trial impossible. However, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the trial court's position of allowing cameras in the courtroom. This decision cleared the way for live courtroom TV shows, as well as the famous live coverage of the O.J Simpson and Rodney King trials.

6. Breaking Promises: Cohen v. Cowles Media Co. (1982)

Dan Cohen, a Republican campaign associate for 1982 Minnesota gubernatorial candidate Wheelock Whitney, gave court records about the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor to various newspapers in St. Paul and Minneapolis. The newspapers promised him confidentiality, but still identified him. He was fired, and Cohen sued the Cowles Media Company in state court for breach of contract. The case wound its way to the Supreme Court, which ruled that the First Amendment didn’t protect the press from breaking a promise to its sources.

7. The Protection of Confidential Sources: Branzburg v. Hayes (1971)

Reporter Paul Branzburg interviewed several drug users in a two-county area in Kentucky, and wrote an article that appeared in the Louisville Courier-Journal. He was called in twice to testify before state grand juries about his confidential sources.  He refused both times.

The Supreme Court found that the fact that reporters receive information in confidence doesn't give them the right to withhold that information in a government investigation. Reporters have gone to jail rather than reveal confidential sources.

8. Censoring Student Newspapers: Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier (1988)

When Hazelwood East High School principal Robert E. Reynolds found two articles inappropriate to be published in the school newspaper he barred them from publication. Cathy Kuhlmeier and two other students on the newspaper staff brought the case to court, saying the principal's actions violated their First Amendment rights.

In a 5-3 decision, the Court said the educators didn't offend the students' First Amendment rights, as long as their actions were "reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns."

Decision Further Defined

The issue was further examined (and possibly confused) when an article written for Utica High School's student newspaper about the harmful effects of bus diesel fumes was barred from publication. A student journalist pursued the issue legally, and the Michigan district court called the censorship incomprehensible: "[I]f the role of the press in a democratic society is to have any value, all journalists -- including student journalists -- must be allowed to publish viewpoints contrary to those of state authorities without intervention or censorship by the authorities themselves."

9. Prior Restraint: Nebraska Press Association v. Stuart (1976)

In a widely publicized murder trial, a Nebraska state trial judge kept reporters from publishing or broadcasting accounts of confessions to the police made by the accused. The judge felt that prior restraint was necessary for a fair trial.

The Supreme Court, however, found that implementing prior restraint wouldn't affect the trial's outcome. Chief Justice Warren Burger reasoned that the "whole community should not be restrained from discussing a subject intimately affecting life within." This was seen as protecting the press' responsibility to provide information of public interest.

10. First Major Brush with Prior Restraint: Near v. Minnesota (1931)

This case helped the Supreme Court define the concept of prior restraint. When Minneapolis newspaper editor Jay Near attacked local officials by claiming in print that they were associated with gangsters, Minnesota officials obtained an injunction to keep the article from being published.

The Court ruled that the action violated the First Amendment and this case helped establish the principle that with a few exceptions the government can't censor or prohibit material in advance of publication, even though the material might be actionable in a future proceeding.


*From The Oyez Project and other sources.

Since this was compiled there have been several court decisions involving homeland security and limitations on reporters' work. The elements of some of these decisions remains classified.


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