What United States Supreme Court Case Banned Prior Restraints?

The 1976 United States Supreme Court case, Nebraska Press Association v. Stuart, was a landmark decision which held that prior restraints were unconstitutional and represented a violation of the First Amendment right of freedom of the press. The ruling grew out of a multiple homicide which occurred in a small Nebraska town in 1975. The Nebraska Press Association appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse a lower court's injunction prohibiting press coverage of the case, and which resulted in a reversal of the previous court's ruling by the Supreme Court on grounds of unconstitutionality.

The significance of the Nebraska Press Association v. Stuart decision was that it fully affirmed that prior restraints prohibiting media coverage in criminal case proceedings were in violation of the First Amendment. The 1976 Supreme Court decision was a more conclusive step in guaranteeing the right of freedom of the press in the wake of the 1971 New York Times Co. v. United States decision which overturned the federal government's temporary injunction to halt the publication of excerpts of the "Pentagon Papers." This was a top-secret report detailing U.S. involvement in Vietnam that was leaked to the press by Daniel Ellsberg. The 1971 Supreme Court ruling was an important preliminary step in demonstrating that placing restraints on the press was unconstitutional.

Prior to the 1976 Nebraska Press Association v. Stuart decision, lower courts had been routinely issuing injunctions, also called prior restraints, against media coverage in certain high-profile criminal cases. The press referred to these injunctions as "gag orders." As a result of the 1976 Supreme Court ruling, the media was able to use its own discretion in deciding what to publish regarding its coverage of judicial proceedings.