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Nebraska Press Association v. Stuart


The Court decided that allowing the press to report events surrounding the trial would not interfere with the defendant's right to a fair trial.

On 19 October 1975, Erwin Simants was arrested and arraigned in Nebraska for the murders of six members of the Kellie family. The Kellie family lived in Sutherland, Nebraska, a community with only 850 people.

Soon after Simants was arrested, the media, including local, regional, and national reporters became interested in the story. Simants' attorney as well as the prosecuting attorney asked the judge at the Lincoln County Court to issue the "gag order." The two lawyers asked for the order because they both wanted Simants to get a fair trial. If the news media were allowed to publish or broadcast information related to the case, they stated, Simants would not receive a fair trial. This information related to the case included details about a confession Simants made, details about a note Simants wrote on the night of the murders, and aspects of the medical testimony and the alleged sexual assaults of the victims.

The county court granted the "gag order." Several days later, members of the news media including publishers, individual reporters and press and broadcast associations asked the county court to remove the "gag order." The arguments were heard in district court and again, on appeal, in the Nebraska Supreme Court--both upholding the county court's decision to keep the "gag order." In keeping the "gag order" the Nebraska Supreme Court quoted the 1971 case New York Times Company v. United States explaining that a "gag order" that restrains publication must be balanced against the importance of a person's right to a fair trial by an impartial jury. The Nebraska Supreme Court decided that there was enough publicity surrounding the Simants case to prevent the defendant from having a fair trial.

It is important to note that the "gag order" would end once the jury had been selected. Even though the case was not heard by the U.S. Supreme Court until after the jury had been selected in the Simants murder trial, the High Court chose to rule on it. The Supreme Court justices were faced with the problem that results from a conflict between First Amendment rights--freedom of the press--and Sixth Amendment rights--the right to a fair trial. America had experienced this conflict several times in its history. Going back as far as when John Adams defended British soldiers who fired upon a crowd of demonstrators in Boston, the justices knew the power of people's passions to influence. Still, the justices voted against the "gag order" for several reasons. Echoing the eight other justices who voted to reject the "gag order," Chief Justice Burger, delivered the Court's ruling. Burger noted that there is nothing that prohibits the press from reporting on events taking place in a court room. He further explained that because of developments in handling the press during the Hauptmann case, and in years to come, there were guidelines in place so a judge could handle any problems and a defendant would get a fair trial. He said the Supreme Court's job in the Nebraska case was not to write a code but to deal with the legal aspect of the case. Citing many cases, including Irvin v. Dowd (1961), Rideau v. Louisiana (1963), Estes v. Texas (1965), and Sheppard v. Maxwell (1977), Burger stated that taken together these cases demonstrate that even widespread pretrial publicity does not lead to a defendant's unfair trial. Therefore, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled to reverse the lower court rulings. The ruling was based on the fact that all nine justices believed Judge Stuart's "gag rule" to be a denial of the news media's rights under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution--freedom of the press. The justices further suggested that the news media may even guard against miscarriages of justice by publishing and broadcasting extensive details about a case.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1973 to 1980Nebraska Press Association v. Stuart - Significance, Related Cases, The "little Lindbergh Law"