Supreme Court and the Press

October 26, 1979

Report Outline
Rising Judiciary-Press Tensions
Free Press and the Constitution
Balancing of Rights in U.S. Society

Rising Judiciary-Press Tensions

Media's Fear of Basic Rights Slipping Away

From the Pentagon Papers to the Progressive magazine's atomic secrets case, the 1970s have seen a steady escalation in the tension between the government and the press in the United States. Tension between these two powerful institutions was built into the American system. The press was expected by the Founding Fathers to fill the important function of keeping citizens informed of the workings of the government. But the widespread skepticism and the new activism of journalists during the turbulent years of Vietnam and Watergate spawned an unprecedented number of collisions between the interests of government, the press and society.

A record number of these disputes found their way to the U.S. Supreme Court. From the court, the press in the 1970s has won several notable victories, chief among them the Pentagon Papers case. But on balance, the press has lost more cases than it has won. This record has evoked an outpouring of criticism of the court in the press — criticism which Justice William J. Brennan Jr. recently described as containing “a new and disturbing note of acrimony, almost bitterness.” For example, the president of the American Newspaper Publishers Association, Allen H. Neuharth, told that organization's convention in April 1979 that the Supreme Court “has battered holes in the First Amendment big enough to drive the whole Constitution through.”

Underlying the uneasy relationship between the present court and the press is disagreement over the breadth of the First Amendment's guarantee that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press ….” Does this guarantee set news people apart, granting them special privileges to acquire and publish information? Or does it simply assure every citizen the right to publish or broadcast his views?

ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
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May 13, 2011  Class Action Lawsuits
Jan. 28, 2005  Supreme Court's Future
Sep. 17, 1993  Supreme Court Preview
Aug. 14, 1987  Supreme Court Nomination
Sep. 26, 1986  The Rehnquist Court
Oct. 26, 1979  Supreme Court and the Press
Sep. 22, 1978  Burger Court's Tenth Year
Jun. 24, 1977  Politics and the Federal Courts
Oct. 09, 1968  Challenging of Supreme Court
Sep. 28, 1966  Supreme Court: Legal Storm Center
Jan. 22, 1958  Criminal Prosecution and the Supreme Court
Jan. 23, 1952  Judges in Politics
Jun. 05, 1939  Supreme Court Decisions, 1938–39
Nov. 17, 1938  Supreme Court Appointments
May 31, 1938  Supreme Court Decisions, 1937–38
Jun. 01, 1937  Supreme Court Decisions, 1936–37
Jun. 01, 1936  Decisions of the Supreme Court, 1935-36
Jun. 05, 1933  Decisions of the Supreme Court, 1932-33
Jun. 04, 1932  Decisions of the Supreme Court, 1931–32
Jun. 06, 1931  Decisions of the Supreme Court, 1930–31
Jun. 09, 1930  Decisions of the Supreme Court, 1929–30
Jun. 10, 1929  Decisions of the Supreme Court, 1928-29
Jun. 09, 1928  Decisions of the Supreme Court 1927–28
Sep. 27, 1924  The Supreme Court Issue
Domestic Issues
Freedom of Information
Freedom of Speech and Press
Supreme Court History and Decisions