MINNESOTA RAG: The Dramatic Story of the Landmark Supreme Court Case That Gave New Mean mg to Freedom of the Press by Fred Friendly

MINNESOTA RAG: The Dramatic Story of the Landmark Supreme Court Case That Gave New Mean mg to Freedom of the Press

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Like so many defendants in First Amendment cases, Jay M. Near, publisher of the Minneapolis/St. Paul Saturday Press, was not particularly appealing as a person. Anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic, anti-black, and anti-labor, he may also have been something of a shakedown artist and blackmailer. But the Twin Cities were wide open towns in the late 1920s, and although Near's sensationalist articles on police and city hall corruption may have seemed a case of the pot calling the kettle black, there was probably a kernel of truth underneath the Saturday Press' inflammatory rhetoric (""Did Mose Barnett, gambler, gangster, TELL THE TRUTH when he said that 'City Hall' was the fourth beneficiary of the gambling den?""). Local officials were' sufficiently put out to enjoin the paper in November, 1927, under a newly-passed law barring publication of ""malicious, scandalous, and defamatory"" newspapers. Friendly's compact, readable account of this grandfather of all ""prior restraint"" cases focuses less on Near himself, and--appropriately--more on the fortuitous interweaving of factors that culminated in a US Supreme Court decision familiar to all law students as Near v. Minnesota. Near was virtually broke, but luckily found a financial backer in Colonel McCormick of the Chicago Tribune, a bedrock conservative about everything but freedom of the press. McCormick not only financed the lawsuit (elbowing out the infant ACLU in the process) but bludgeoned the American Newspaper Publishers Association into supporting him. From a legal standpoint, the timing of the case was crucial: the Supreme Court's conservative ranks had been thinned by two recent deaths, the two new appointees were more moderate, and the brilliant (though fading) Holmes was still hanging in at age 89. Had the case come up a year earlier, the result would almost certainly have been different. As it was, the Court split 5-4, but its condemnation of prior restraint was explicit: ""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."" Succint and well researched--good reading for lawyers, law students, or anyone interested in press freedom.

Pub Date: June 1st, 1981
Publisher: Random House