Nebraska Press Assn. v. Stuart


No. 75-817 Argued: April 19, 1976 --- Decided: June 30, 1976
MR. CHIEF JUSTICE BURGER delivered the opinion of the Court.

The respondent State District Judge entered an order restraining the petitioners from publishing or broadcasting accounts of confessions or admissions made by the accused or facts "strongly implicative" of the accused in a widely reported murder of six persons. We granted certiorari to decide whether the entry of such an order on the showing made before the state court violated the constitutional guarantee of freedom of the press. [p542]


On the evening of October 18, 1975, local police found the six members of the Henry Kellie family murdered in their home in Sutherland, Neb. a town of about 850 people. Police released the description of a suspect, Erwin Charles Simants, to the reporters who had hastened to the scene of the crime. Simants was arrested and arraigned in Lincoln County Court the following morning, ending a tense night for this small rural community.

The crime immediately attracted widespread news coverage, by local, regional, and national newspapers, radio and television stations. Three days after the crime, the County Attorney and Simants' attorney joined in asking the County Court to enter a restrictive order relating to "matters that may or may not be publicly reported or disclosed to the public," because of the "mass coverage by news media" and the

reasonable likelihood of prejudicial news which would make difficult, if not impossible, the impaneling of an impartial jury and tend to prevent a fair trial.

The County Court heard oral argument, but took no evidence; no attorney for members of the press appeared at this stage. The County Court granted the prosecutor's motion for a restrictive order and entered it the next day, October 22. The order prohibited everyone in attendance from

releas[ing] or authoriz[ing] the release for public dissemination in any form or manner whatsoever any testimony given or evidence adduced;

the order also required members of the press to observe the Nebraska Bar-Press Guidelines. [n1] [p543]

Simants' preliminary hearing was held the same day, open to the public but subject to the order. The County Court bound over the defendant for trial to the State District Court. The charges, as amended to reflect the autopsy findings, were that Simants had committed the murders in the course of a sexual assault.

Petitioners -- several press and broadcast associations, publishers, and individual reporters -- moved on October 23 for leave to intervene in the District Court, asking that the restrictive order imposed by the County Court be vacated. The District Court conducted a hearing, at which the County Judge testified and newspaper articles about the Simants case were admitted in evidence. The District Judge granted petitioners' motion to intervene and, on October 27, entered his own restrictive order. The judge found, "because of the nature of the crimes charged in the complaint that there, is a clear and present danger that pretrial publicity could impinge upon the defendant's right to a fair trial." The order applied only until the jury was impaneled, and specifically prohibited petitioners from reporting five subjects: (1) the existence or contents of a confession Simants had made to law enforcement officers, which had been introduced in open court at arraignment; (2) the fact or nature of statements Simants had made to other persons; (3) the contents of a note he had written the night of the crime; (4) certain aspects of the medical testimony at the preliminary hearing; and (5) the identity of the [p544] victims of the alleged sexual assault and the nature of the assault. It also prohibited reporting the exact nature of the restrictive order itself. Like the County Court's order, this order incorporated the Nebraska Bar-Press Guidelines. Finally, the order set out a plan for attendance, seating, and courthouse traffic control during the trial.

Four days later, on October 31, petitioners asked the District Court to stay its order. At the same time, they applied to the Nebraska Supreme Court for a writ of mandamus, a stay, and an expedited appeal from the order. The State of Nebraska and the defendant Simants intervened in these actions. The Nebraska Supreme Court heard oral argument on November 25, and issued its per curiam opinion December 1. State v. Simants, 194 Neb. 783, 236 N.W.2d 794 (1975). [n2] [p545]

The Nebraska Supreme Court balanced the "heavy presumption against . . . constitutional validity" that an order restraining publication bears, New York Times Co. v. United States, 403 U.S. 713, 714 (1971), against the importance of the defendant's right to trial by an impartial jury. Both society and the individual defendant, the court held, had a vital interest in assuring that Simants be tried by an impartial jury. Because of the publicity surrounding the crime, the court determined that this right was in jeopardy. The court noted that Nebraska statutes required the District Court to try Simants within six months of his arrest, and that a change of venue could move the trial only to adjoining counties, which had been subject to essentially the same publicity as Lincoln County. The Nebraska Supreme Court held that "[u]nless the absolutist position of the relators was constitutionally correct, it would appear that the District Court acted properly." 194 Neb. at 797, 236 N.W.2d at 803.

The Nebraska Supreme Court rejected that "absolutist position," but modified the District Court's order to accommodate the defendant's right to a fair trial and the petitioners' interest in reporting pretrial events. The order as modified prohibited reporting of only three matters: (a) the existence and nature of any confessions or admissions made by the defendant to law enforcement officers, (b) any confessions or admissions made to any third parties, except members of the press, and (c) other facts "strongly implicative" of the accused. The Nebraska Supreme Court did not rely on the Nebraska Bar Press Guidelines. See n. 1, supra. After construing Nebraska law to permit closure in certain circumstances, the court remanded the case to the District Judge for reconsideration of the issue whether pretrial hearings should be closed to the press and public. [p546]

We granted certiorari to address the important issues raised by the District Court order as modified by the Nebraska Supreme Court, but we denied the motion to expedite review or to stay entirely the order of the State District Court pending Simants' trial. 423 U.S. 1027 (1975). We are informed by the parties that, since we granted certiorari, Simants has been convicted of murder and sentenced to death. His appeal is pending in the Nebraska Supreme Court.


The order at issue in this case expired by its own terms when the jury was impaneled on January 7, 1976. There were no restraints on publication once the jury was selected, and there are now no restrictions on what may be spoken or written about the Simants case. Intervenor Simants argues that for this reason the case is moot.

Our jurisdiction under Art. III, § 2, of the Constitution extends only to actual cases and controversies. Indianapolis School Comm'rs v. Jacobs, 420 U.S. 128 (1975); Sosna v. Iowa, 419 U.S. 393, 397-403 (1975). The Court has recognized, however, that jurisdiction is not necessarily defeated simply because the order attacked has expired, if the underlying dispute between the parties is one "capable of repetition, yet evading review." Southern Pacific Terminal Co. v. ICC, 219 U.S. 498, 515 (1911).

The controversy between the parties to this case is "capable of repetition" in two senses. First, if Simants' conviction is reversed by the Nebraska Supreme Court and a new trial ordered, the District Court may enter another restrictive order to prevent a resurgence of prejudicial publicity before Simants' retrial. Second, the State of Nebraska is a party to this case; the Nebraska Supreme Court's decision authorizes state prosecutors to [p547] seek restrictive orders in appropriate cases. The dispute between the State and the petitioners who cover events throughout the State is thus "capable of repetition." Yet, if we decline to address the issues in this case on grounds of mootness, the dispute will evade review, or at least considered plenary review in this Court, since these orders are by nature short-lived. See, e.g., Weinstein v. Bradford, 423 U.S. 147 (1975); Sosna v. Iowa, supra; Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113, 125 (1973); Moore v. Ogilvie, 394 U.S. 814, 816 (1969); Carroll v. Princess Anne, 393 U.S. 175, 178-179 (1968). We therefore conclude that this case is not moot, and proceed to the merits.


The problems presented by this case are almost as old as the Republic. Neither in the Constitution nor in contemporaneous writings do we find that the conflict between these two important rights was anticipated, yet it is inconceivable that the authors of the Constitution were unaware of the potential conflicts between the right to an unbiased jury and the guarantee of freedom of the press. The unusually able lawyers who helped write the Constitution and later drafted the Bill of Rights were familiar with the historic episode in which John Adams defended British soldiers charged with homicide for firing into a crowd of Boston demonstrators; they were intimately familiar with the clash of the adversary system and the part that passions of the populace sometimes play in influencing potential jurors. They did not address themselves directly to the situation presented by this case; their chief concern was the need for freedom of expression in the political arena and the dialogue in ideas. But they recognized that there were risks to private rights from an unfettered press. Jefferson, for example, [p548] writing from Paris in 1786 concerning press attacks on John Jay, stated:

In truth, it is afflicting that a man who has past his life in serving the public . . . should yet be liable to have his peace of mind so much disturbed by any individual who shall think proper to arraign him in a newspaper. It is, however, an evil for which there is no remedy. Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost. . . .

9 Papers of Thomas Jefferson 239 (J. Boyd ed.1954). See also F. Mott, Jefferson and the Press 21, 38-46 (1943).

The trial of Aaron Burr in 1807 presented Mr. Chief Justice Marshall, presiding as a trial judge, with acute problems in selecting an unbiased jury. Few people in the area of Virginia from which jurors were drawn had not formed some opinions concerning Mr. Burr or the case, from newspaper accounts and heightened discussion both private and public. The Chief Justice conducted a searching voir dire of the two panels eventually called, and rendered a substantial opinion on the purposes of voir dire and the standards to be applied. See 1 Causes Celebres, Trial of Aaron Burr for Treason 40427, 473481 (1879); United States v. Burr, 25 F.Cas. 49 (No. 14,692g) (CC Va. 1807). Burr was acquitted, so there was no occasion for appellate review to examine the problem of prejudicial pretrial publicity. Mr. Chief Justice Marshall's careful voir dire inquiry into the matter of possible bias makes clear that the problem is not a new one.

The speed of communication and the pervasiveness of the modern news media have exacerbated these problems, however, as numerous appeals demonstrate. The trial of Bruno Hauptmann in a small New Jersey community for [p549] the abduction and murder of the Charles Lindberghs' infant child probably was the most widely covered trial up to that time, and the nature of the coverage produced widespread public reaction. Criticism was directed at the "carnival" atmosphere that pervaded the community and the courtroom itself. Responsible leaders of press and the legal profession -- including other judges -- pointed out that much of this sorry performance could have been controlled by a vigilant trial judge and by other public officers subject to the control of the court. See generally Hudson, Freedom of the Press Versus Fair Trial: The Remedy Lies With the Courts, 1 Val.U.L.Rev. 8, 114 (1966); Hallam, Some Object Lessons on Publicity in Criminal Trials, 24 Minn.L.Rev. 453 (1940); Lippmann, The Lindbergh Case in Its Relation to American Newspapers, in Problems of Journalism 154-156 (1936).

The excesses of press and radio and lack of responsibility of those in authority in the Hauptmann case and others of that era led to efforts to develop voluntary guidelines for courts, lawyers, press, and broadcasters. See generally J. Lofton, Justice and the Press 117-130 (1966). [n3] The effort was renewed in 1965, when the American Bar Association embarked on a project to develop standards for all aspects of criminal justice, including guidelines to accommodate the right to a fair trial and the rights of a free press. See Powell, The Right to a [p550] Fair Trial, 51 A.B.A.J. 534 (1965). The resulting standards, approved by the Association in 1968, received support from most of the legal profession. American Bar Association Project on Standards for Criminal Justice, Fair Trial and Free Press (Approved Draft 1968). Other groups have undertaken similar studies. See Report of the Judicial Conference Committee on the Operation of the Jury System, "Free Press-Fair Trial" Issue, 45 F.R.D. 391 (1968); Special Committee on Radio, Television, and the Administration of Justice of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York, Freedom of the Press and Fair Trial (1967). In the wake of these efforts, the cooperation between bar associations and members of the press led to the adoption of voluntary guidelines like Nebraska's. See n. 1, supra; American Bar Association Legal Advisory Committee on Fair Trial and Free Press, The Rights of Fair Trial and Free Press 1-6 (1969).

In practice, of course, even the most ideal guidelines are subjected to powerful strains when a case such as Simants' arises, with reporters from many parts of the country on the scene. Reporters from distant places are unlikely to consider themselves bound by local standards. They report to editors outside the area covered by the guidelines, and their editors are likely to be guided only by their own standards. To contemplate how a state court can control acts of a newspaper or broadcaster outside its jurisdiction, even though the newspapers and broadcasts reach the very community from which jurors are to be selected, suggests something of the practical difficulties of managing such guidelines.

The problems presented in this case have a substantial history outside the reported decisions of courts, in the efforts of many responsible people to accommodate the competing interests. We cannot resolve all of them, for [p551] it is not the function of this Court to write a code. We look instead to this particular case and the legal context in which it arises.


The Sixth Amendment in terms guarantees "trial, by an impartial jury . . ." in federal criminal prosecutions. Because "trial by jury in criminal cases is fundamental to the American scheme of justice," the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment guarantees the same right in state criminal prosecutions. Duncan v. Louisiana, 391 U.S. 145, 149 (1968).

In essence, the right to jury trial guarantees to the criminally accused a fair trial by a panel of impartial, "indifferent" jurors. . . . "A fair trial in a fair tribunal is a basic requirement of due process." In re Murchison, 349 U.S. 133, 136. In the ultimate analysis, only the jury can strip a man of his liberty or his life. In the language of Lord Coke, a juror must be as "indifferent as he stands unsworne." Co.Litt. 155b. His verdict must be based upon the evidence developed at the trial.

Irvin v. Dowd, 366 U.S. 717, 722 (1961).

In the overwhelming majority of criminal trials, pretrial publicity presents few unmanageable threats to this important right. But when the case is a "sensational" one, tensions develop between the right of the accused to trial by an impartial jury and the rights guaranteed others by the First Amendment. The relevant decisions of this Court, even if not dispositive, are instructive by way of background.

In Irvin v. Dowd, supra, for example, the defendant was convicted of murder following intensive and hostile news coverage. The trial judge had granted a defense motion for a change of venue, but only to an [p552] adjacent county, which had been exposed to essentially the same news coverage. At trial, 430 persons were called for jury service; 268 were excused because they had fixed opinions as to guilt. Eight of the 12 who served as jurors thought the defendant guilty, but said they could nevertheless render an impartial verdict. On review, the Court vacated the conviction and death sentence and remanded to allow a new trial for, "[w]ith his life at stake, it is not requiring too much that petitioner be tried in an atmosphere undisturbed by so huge a wave of public passion. . . ." 366 U.S. at 728.

Similarly, in Rideau v. Louisiana, 373 U.S. 723 (1963), the Court reversed the conviction of a defendant whose staged, highly emotional confession had been filmed with the cooperation of local police and later broadcast on television for three days while he was awaiting trial, saying "[a]ny subsequent court proceedings in a community so pervasively exposed to such a spectacle could be but a hollow formality." Id. at 726. And in Estes v. Texas, 381 U.S. 532 (1965), the Court held that the defendant had not been afforded due process where the volume of trial publicity, the judge's failure to control the proceedings, and the telecast of a hearing and of the trial itself "inherently prevented a sober search for the truth." Id. at 551. See also Marshall v. United States, 360 U.S. 310 (1959)

In Sheppard v. Maxwell, 384 U.S. 333 (1966), the Court focused sharply on the impact of pretrial publicity and a trial court's duty to protect the defendant's constitutional right to a fair trial. With only Mr. Justice Black dissenting, and he without opinion, the Court ordered a new trial for the petitioner, even though the first trial had occurred 12 years before. Beyond doubt, the press had shown no responsible concern for the constitutional guarantee of a fair trial; the community [p553] from which the jury was drawn had been inundated by publicity hostile to the defendant. But the trial judge

did not fulfill his duty to protect [the defendant] from the inherently prejudicial publicity which saturated the community and to control disruptive influences in the courtroom.

Id. at 363. The Court noted that "unfair and prejudicial news comment on pending trials has become increasingly prevalent," id. at 362, and issued a strong warning:

Due process requires that the accused receive a trial by an impartial jury free from outside influences. Given the pervasiveness of modern communications and the difficulty of effacing prejudicial publicity from the minds of the jurors, the trial courts must take strong measures to ensure that the balance is never weighed against the accused. . . . Of course, there is nothing that proscribes the press from reporting events that transpire in the courtroom. But where there is a reasonable likelihood that prejudicial news prior to trial will prevent a fair trial, the judge should continue the case until the threat abates, or transfer it to another county not so permeated with publicity. In addition, sequestration of the jury was something the judge should have raised sua sponte with counsel. If publicity during the proceedings threatens the fairness of the trial, a new trial should be ordered. But we must remember that reversals are but palliatives; the cure lies in those remedial measures that will prevent the prejudice at its inception. The courts must take such steps by rule and regulation that will protect their processes from prejudicial outside interferences. Neither prosecutors, counsel for defense, the accused, witnesses, court staff nor enforcement officers coming under the jurisdiction of the [p554] court should be permitted to frustrate its function. Collaboration between counsel and the press as to information affecting the fairness of a criminal trial is not only subject to regulation, but is highly censurable and worthy of disciplinary measures.

Id. at 362-363 (emphasis added). Because the trial court had failed to use even minimal efforts to insulate the trial and the jurors from the "deluge of publicity," id. at 357, the Court vacated the judgment of conviction and a new trial followed, in which the accused was acquitted.

Cases such as these are relatively rare, and we have held in other cases that trials have been fair in spite of widespread publicity. In Stroble v. California, 343 U.S. 181 (1952), for example, the Court affirmed a conviction and death sentence challenged on the ground that pretrial news accounts, including the prosecutor's release of the defendant's recorded confession, were allegedly so inflammatory as to amount to a denial of due process. The Court disapproved of the prosecutor's conduct, but noted that the publicity had receded some six weeks before trial, that the defendant had not moved for a change of venue, and that the confession had been found voluntary and admitted in evidence at trial. The Court also noted the thorough examination of jurors on voir dire and the careful review of the facts by the state courts, and held that petitioner had failed to demonstrate a denial of due process. See also Murphy v. Florida, 421 U.S. 794 (1975); Beck v. Washington, 369 U.S. 541 (1962).

Taken together, these cases demonstrate that pretrial publicity even pervasive, adverse publicity -- does not inevitably lead to an unfair trial. The capacity of the jury eventually impaneled to decide the case fairly is influenced by the tone and extent of the publicity, [p555] which is in part, and often in large part, shaped by what attorneys, police, and other officials do to precipitate news coverage. The trial judge has a major responsibility. What the judge says about a case, in or out of the courtroom, is likely to appear in newspapers and broadcasts. More important, the measures a judge takes or fails to take to mitigate the effects of pretrial publicity -- the measures described in Sheppard -- may well determine whether the defendant receives a trial consistent with the requirements of due process. That this responsibility has not always been properly discharged is apparent from the decisions just reviewed.

The costs of failure to afford a fair trial are high. In the most extreme cases, like Sheppard and Estes, the risk of injustice was avoided when the convictions were reversed. But a reversal means that justice has been delayed for both the defendant and the State; in some cases, because of lapse of time retrial is impossible or further prosecution is gravely handicapped. Moreover, in borderline cases in which the conviction is not reversed, there is some possibility of an injustice unredressed. The "strong measures" outlined in Sheppard v. Maxwell are means by which a trial judge can try to avoid exacting these costs from society or from the accused.

The state trial judge in the case before us acted responsibly, out of a legitimate concern, in an effort to protect the defendant's right to a fair trial. [n4] What we must decide is not simply whether the Nebraska courts erred [p556] in seeing the possibility of real danger to the defendant's rights, but whether in the circumstances of this case the means employed were foreclosed by another provision of the Constitution.


The First Amendment provides that "Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom . . . of the press," and it is

no longer open to doubt that the liberty of the press, and of speech, is within the liberty safeguarded by the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment from invasion by state action.

Near v. Minnesota ex rel. Olson, 283 U.S. 697, 707 (1931). See also Grosjean v. American Press Co., 297 U.S. 233, 244 (1936). The Court has interpreted these guarantees to afford special protection against orders that prohibit the publication or broadcast of particular information or commentary -- orders that impose a "previous" or "prior" restraint on speech. None of our decided cases on prior restraint involved restrictive orders entered to protect a defendant's right to a fair and impartial jury, but the opinions on prior restraint have a common thread relevant to this case.

In Near v. Minnesota ex rel. Olson, supra, the Court held invalid a Minnesota statute providing for the abatement as a public nuisance of any "malicious, scandalous and defamatory newspaper, magazine or other periodical." Near had published an occasional weekly newspaper described by the County Attorney's complaint as "largely devoted to malicious, scandalous and defamatory articles" concerning political and other public figures. 283 U.S. at 703. Publication was enjoined pursuant to the statute. Excerpts from Near's paper, set out in the dissenting opinion of Mr. Justice Butler, show beyond question that one of its principal characteristics was blatant anti-Semitism. See id. at 723, 724-727, n. 1. [p557]

Mr. Chief Justice Hughes, writing for the Court, noted that freedom of the press is not an absolute right, and the State may punish its abuses. He observed that the statute was "not aimed at the redress of individual or private wrongs." Id. at 708, 709. He then focused on the statute:

[T]he operation and effect of the statute in substance is that public authorities may bring the owner or publisher of a newspaper or periodical before a judge upon a charge of conducting a business of publishing scandalous and defamatory matter . . . and unless the owner or publisher is able . . . to satisfy the judge that the [matter is] true and . . . published with good motives . . . his newspaper or periodical is suppressed. . . . This is of the essence of censorship.

Id. at 713. The Court relied on Patterson v. Colorado ex rel. Attorney General, 205 U.S. 454, 462 (1907):

[T]he main purpose of [the First Amendment] is "to prevent all such previous restraints upon publications as had been practiced by other governments." [n5]

The principles enunciated in Near were so universally accepted that the precise issue did not come before us again until Organization for a Better Austin v. Keefe, [p558] 402 U.S. 415 (1971). There the state courts had enjoined the petitioners from picketing or passing out literature of any kind in a specified area. Noting the similarity to Near v. Minnesota, a unanimous Court held:

Here, as in that case, the injunction operates not to redress alleged private wrongs, but to suppress, on the basis of previous publications, distribution of literature "of any kind" in a city of 18,000.

* * * *

Any prior restraint on expression comes to this Court with a "heavy presumption" against its constitutional validity. Carroll v. Princess Anne, 393 U.S. 175, 181 (1968); Bantam Books, Inc. v. Sullivan, 372 U.S. 58, 70 (1963). Respondent thus carries a heavy burden of showing justification for the imposition of such a restraint. He has not met that burden. . . . Designating the conduct as an invasion of privacy, the apparent basis for the injunction here, is not sufficient to support an injunction against peaceful distribution of informational literature of the nature revealed by this record.

402 U.S. at 418-420.

More recently in New York Times Co. v. United States, 403 U.S. 713 (1971), the Government sought to enjoin the publication of excerpts from a massive, classified study of this Nation's involvement in the Vietnam conflict, going back to the end of the Second World War. The dispositive opinion of the Court simply concluded that the Government had not met its heavy burden of showing justification for the prior restraint. Each of the six concurring Justices and the three dissenting Justices expressed his views separately, but

every member of the Court, tacitly or explicitly, accepted the Near and Keefe condemnation of prior restraint as presumptively unconstitutional.

Pittsburgh Press Co. v. Human Rel. [p559] Comm'n, 413 U.S. 376, 396 (1973) (BURGER, C.J., dissenting). The Court's conclusion in New York Times suggests that the burden on the Government is not reduced by the temporary nature of a restraint; in that case the Government asked for a temporary restraint solely to permit it to study and assess the impact on national security of the lengthy documents at issue.

The thread running through all these cases is that prior restraints on speech and publication are the most serious and the least tolerable infringement on First Amendment rights. A criminal penalty or a judgment in a defamation case is subject to the whole panoply of protections afforded by deferring the impact of the judgment until all avenues of appellate review have been exhausted. Only after judgment has become final, correct or otherwise, does the law's sanction become fully operative.

A prior restraint, by contrast and by definition, has an immediate and irreversible sanction. If it can be said that a threat of criminal or civil sanctions after publication "chills" speech, prior restraint "freezes" it at least for the time. [n6]

The damage can be particularly great when the prior restraint falls upon the communication of news and commentary on current events. Truthful reports of public judicial proceedings have been afforded special protection against subsequent punishment. See Cox Broadcasting Corp v. Cohn, 420 U.S. 469, 492-493(1975); see also, Craig v. Harney, 331 U.S. 367, 374 (1947). For the same reasons the protection against prior restraint should have particular force as applied to reporting of criminal proceedings, whether the crime in question is a single isolated act or a pattern of criminal conduct.

A responsible press has always been regarded as [p560] the handmaiden of effective judicial administration, especially in the criminal field. Its function in this regard is documented by an impressive record of service over several centuries. The press does not simply publish information about trials, but guards against the miscarriage of justice by subjecting the police, prosecutors, and judicial processes to extensive public scrutiny and criticism.

Sheppard v. Maxwell, 384 U.S. at 350. The extraordinary protections afforded by the First Amendment carry with them something in the nature of a fiduciary duty to exercise the protected rights responsibly -- a duty widely acknowledged but not always observed by editors and publishers. It is not asking too much to suggest that those who exercise First Amendment rights in newspapers or broadcasting enterprises direct some effort to protect the rights of an accused to a fair trial by unbiased jurors.

Of course, the order at issue like the order requested in New York Times -- does not prohibit, but only postpones, publication. Some news can be delayed, and most commentary can even more readily be delayed without serious injury, and there often is a self-imposed delay when responsible editors call for verification of information. But such delays are normally slight, and they are self-imposed. Delays imposed by governmental authority are a different matter.

We have learned, and continue to learn, from what we view as the unhappy experiences of other nations where government has been allowed to meddle in the internal editorial affairs of newspapers. Regardless of how beneficent-sounding the purposes of controlling the press might be, we . . . remain intensely skeptical about those measures that would allow government to insinuate itself into the editorial [p561] rooms of. this Nation's press.

Miami Herald Publishing Co. v. Tornillo, 418 U.S. 241, 259 (1974) (WHITE, J., concurring). See also Columbia Broadcasting v. Democratic Comm., 412 U.S. 94 (1973). As a practical matter, moreover, the element of time is not unimportant if press coverage is to fulfill its traditional function of bringing news to the public promptly.

The authors of the Bill of Rights did not undertake to assign priorities as between First Amendment and Sixth Amendment rights, ranking one as superior to the other. In this case, the petitioners would have us declare the right of an accused subordinate to their right to publish in all circumstances. But if the authors of these guarantees, fully aware of the potential conflicts between them, were unwilling or unable to resolve the issue by assigning to one priority over the other, it is not for us to rewrite the Constitution by undertaking what they declined to do. It is unnecessary, after nearly two centuries, to establish a priority applicable in all circumstances. Yet it is nonetheless clear that the barriers to prior restraint remain high unless we are to abandon what the Court has said for nearly a quarter of our national existence and implied throughout all of it. The history of even wartime suspension of categorical guarantees, such as habeas corpus or the right to trial by civilian courts, see Ex parte Milligan, 4 Wall. 2 (1867), cautions against suspending explicit guarantees.

The Nebraska courts in this case enjoined the publication of certain kinds of information about the Simants case. There are, as we suggested earlier, marked differences in setting and purpose between the order entered here and the orders in Near, Keefe, and New York Times, but as to the underlying issue the right of the press to be free from prior restraints on publication -- those [p562] cases form the backdrop against which we must decide this case.


We turn now to the record in this case to determine whether, as Learned Hand put it, "the gravity of the ‘evil,' discounted by its improbability, justifies such invasion of free speech as is necessary to avoid the danger." United States v. Dennis, 183 F.2d 201, 212 (CA2 1950), aff'd, 341 U.S. 494 (1951); see also L. Hand, The Bill of Rights 58-61 (1958). To do so, we must examine the evidence before the trial judge when the order was entered to determine (a) the nature and extent of pretrial news coverage; (b) whether other measures would be likely to mitigate the effects of unrestrained pretrial publicity; and (c) how effectively a restraining order would operate to prevent the threatened danger. The precise terms of the restraining order are also important. We must then consider whether the record supports the entry of a prior restraint on publication, one of the most extraordinary remedies known to our jurisprudence.


In assessing the probable extent of publicity, the trial judge had before him newspapers demonstrating that the crime had already drawn intensive news coverage, and the testimony of the County Judge, who had entered the initial restraining order based on the local and national attention the case had attracted. The District Judge was required to assess the probable publicity that would be given these shocking crimes prior to the time a jury was selected and sequestered. He then had to examine the probable nature of the publicity and determine how it would affect prospective jurors.

Our review of the pretrial record persuades us that the trial judge was justified in concluding that there would [p563] be intense and pervasive pretrial publicity concerning this case. He could also reasonably conclude, based on common human experience, that publicity might impair the defendant's right to a fair trial. He did not purport to say more, for he found only "a clear and present danger that pretrial publicity could impinge upon the defendant's right to a fair trial." (Emphasis added.) His conclusion as to the impact of such publicity on prospective jurors was, of necessity, speculative, dealing as he was with factors unknown and unknowable.


We find little in the record that goes to another aspect of our task, determining whether measures short of an order restraining all publication would have insured the defendant a fair trial. Although the entry of the order might be read as a judicial determination that other measures would not suffice, the trial court made no express findings to that effect; the Nebraska Supreme Court referred to the issue only by implication. See 194 Neb. at 797-798, 236 N.W.2d at 803.

Most of the alternatives to prior restraint of publication in these circumstances were discussed with obvious approval in Sheppard v. Maxwell, 384 U.S. at 357-362: (a) change of trial venue to a place less exposed to the intense publicity that seemed imminent in Lincoln County; [n7] (b) postponement of the trial to allow [p564] public attention to subside; (c) searching questioning of prospective jurors, as Mr. Chief Justice Marshall used in the Burr case, to screen out those with fixed opinions as to guilt or innocence; (d) the use of emphatic and clear instructions on the sworn duty of each juror to decide the issues only on evidence presented in open court. Sequestration of jurors is, of course, always available. Although that measure insulates jurors only after they are sworn, it also enhances the likelihood of dissipating the impact of pretrial publicity and emphasizes the elements of the jurors' oaths.

This Court has outlined other measures short of prior restraints on publication tending to blunt the impact of pretrial publicity. See Sheppard v. Maxwell, supra at 361-362. Professional studies have filled out these suggestions, recommending that trial courts in appropriate cases limit what the contending lawyers, the police, and witnesses may say to anyone. See American Bar Association Project on Standards for Criminal Justice, Fair Trial and Free Press 2-15 (App.Draft 168). [n8] [p565]

We have noted earlier that pretrial publicity, even if pervasive and concentrated, cannot be regarded as leading automatically and in every kind of criminal case to an unfair trial. The decided cases

cannot be made to stand for the proposition that juror exposure to information about a state defendant's prior convictions or to news accounts of the crime with which he is charged alone presumptively deprives the defendant of due process.

Murphy v. Florida, 421 U.S. at 799. Appellate evaluations as to the impact of publicity take into account what other measures were used to mitigate the adverse effects of publicity. The more difficult prospective or predictive assessment that a trial judge must make also calls for a judgment as to whether other precautionary steps will suffice.

We have therefore examined this record to determine the probable efficacy of the measures short of prior restraint on the press and speech. There is no finding that alternative measures would not have protected Simants' rights, and the Nebraska Supreme Court did no more than imply that such measures might not be adequate. Moreover, the record is lacking in evidence to support such a finding.


We must also assess the probable efficacy of prior restraint on publication as a workable method of protecting Simants' right to a fair trial, and we cannot ignore the reality of the problems of managing and enforcing pretrial restraining orders. The territorial jurisdiction of the issuing court is limited by concepts of sovereignty, see, e.g., Hanson v. Denckla, 357 U.S. 235 (1958); Pennoyer v. Neff, 95 U.S. 714 (1878). The need for in [p566] personam jurisdiction also presents an obstacle to a restraining order that applies to publication at large a distinguished from restraining publication within a given Jurisdiction. [n9] See generally American Bar Association, Legal Advisory Committee on Fair Trial and Free Press, Recommended Court Procedure to Accommodate Rights of Fair Trial and Free Press (Rev. Draft, Nov.1975); Rendleman, Free Press-Fair Trial: Review of Silence Orders, 52 N.C.L.Rev. 127, 149-155 (1973). [n10]

The Nebraska Supreme Court narrowed the scope of the restrictive order, and its opinion reflects awareness of the tensions between the need to protect the accused as fully as possible and the need to restrict publication as little as possible. The dilemma posed underscores how [p567] difficult it is for trial judges to predict what information will, in fact, undermine the impartiality of jurors, and the difficulty of drafting an order that will effectively keep prejudicial information from prospective jurors. When a restrictive order is sought, a court can anticipate only part of what will develop that may injure the accused. But information not so obviously prejudicial may emerge, and what may properly be published in these "gray zone" circumstances may not violate the restrictive order and yet be prejudicial.

Finally, we note that the events disclosed by the record took place in a community of 850 people. It is reasonable to assume that, without any news accounts being printed or broadcast, rumors would travel swiftly by word of mouth. One can only speculate on the accuracy of such reports, given the generative propensities of rumors; they could well be more damaging than reasonably accurate news accounts. But plainly a whole community cannot be restrained from discussing a subject intimately affecting life within it.

Given these practical problems, it is far from clear that prior restraint on publication would have protected Simants' rights.


Finally, another feature of this case leads us to conclude that the restrictive order entered here is not supportable. At the outset, the County Court entered a very broad restrictive order, the terms of which are not before us; it then held a preliminary hearing open to the public and the press. There was testimony concerning at least two incriminating statements made by Simants to private persons; the statement -- evidently a confession -- that he gave to law enforcement officials was also introduced. The State District Court's later order was entered after this public hearing and, as modified by the [p568] Nebraska Supreme Court, enjoined reporting of (1) "[c]onfessions or admissions against interest made by the accused to law enforcement officials"; (2) "[c]onfessions or admissions against interest, oral or written, if any, made by the accused to third parties, excepting any statements, if any, made by the accused to representatives of the news media"; and (3) all "[o]ther information strongly implicative of the accused as the perpetrator of the slayings." 194 Neb. at 801, 236 N.W.2d at 805.

To the extent that this order prohibited the reporting of evidence adduced at the open preliminary hearing, it plainly violated settled principles: "[T]here is nothing that proscribes the press from reporting events that transpire in the courtroom." Sheppard v. Maxwell, 384 U.S. at 362-363. See also Cox Broadcasting Corp. v. Cohn, 420 U.S. 469 (1975); Craig v. Harney, 331 U.S. 367 (1947). The County Court could not know that closure of the preliminary hearing was an alternative open to it until the Nebraska Supreme Court so construed state law; but once a public hearing had been held, what transpired there could not be subject to prior restraint.

The third prohibition of the order was defective in another respect as well. As part of a final order, entered after plenary review, this prohibition regarding "implicative" information is too vague and too broad to survive the scrutiny we have given to restraints on First Amendment rights. See, e.g., Hynes v. Mayor of Oradell, 425 U.S. 610 (1976); Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1, (1976); NAACP v. Button, 371 U.S. 415 (1963). The third phase of the order entered falls outside permissible limits.


The record demonstrates, as the Nebraska courts held, that there was indeed a risk that pretrial news accounts, [p569] true or false, would have some adverse impact on the attitudes of those who might be called as jurors. But, on the record now before us, it is not clear that further publicity, unchecked, would so distort the views of potential jurors that 12 could not be found who would, under proper instructions, fulfill their sworn duty to render a just verdict exclusively on the evidence presented in open court. We cannot say on this record that alternatives to a prior restraint on petitioners would not have sufficiently mitigated the adverse effects of pretrial publicity so as to make prior restraint unnecessary. Nor can we conclude that the restraining order actually entered would serve its intended purpose. Reasonable minds can have few doubts about the gravity of the evil pretrial publicity can work, but the probability that it would do so here was not demonstrated with the degree of certainty our cases on prior restraint require.

Of necessity, our holding is confined to the record before us. But our conclusion is not simply a result of assessing the adequacy of the showing made in this case; it results in part from the problems inherent in meeting the heavy burden of demonstrating, in advance of trial, that without prior restraint a fair trial will be denied. The practical problems of managing and enforcing restrictive orders will always be present. In this sense, the record now before us is illustrative, rather than exceptional. It is significant that, when this Court has reversed a state conviction because of prejudicial publicity, it has carefully noted that some course of action short of prior restraint would have made a critical difference. See Sheppard v. Maxwell, supra at 363; Estes v. Texas, 381 U.S. at 550-551; Rideau v. Louisiana, 373 U.S. at 726; Irwin v. Dowd, 366 U.S. at 728. However difficult it may be, we need not rule out the possibility of showing the kind of threat to fair trial rights that would possess [p570] the requisite degree of certainty to justify restraint. This Court has frequently denied that First Amendment rights are absolute and has consistently rejected the proposition that a prior restraint can never be employed. See New York Times Co. v. United States, 403 U.S. 713 (1971); Organization for a Better Austin v. Keefe, 402 U.S. 415 (1971); Near v. Minnesota ex rel. Olson, 283 U.S. 697 (1931).

Our analysis ends as it began, with a confrontation between prior restraint imposed to protect one vital constitutional guarantee and the explicit command of another that the freedom to speak and publish shall not be abridged. We reaffirm that the guarantees of freedom of expression are not an absolute prohibition under all circumstances, but the barriers to prior restraint remain high, and the presumption against its use continues intact. We hold that, with respect to the order entered in this case prohibiting reporting or commentary on judicial proceedings held in public, the barriers have not been overcome; to the extent that this order restrained publication of such material, it is clearly invalid. To the extent that it prohibited publication based on information gained from other sources, we conclude that the heavy burden imposed as a condition to securing a prior restraint was not met, and the judgment of the Nebraska Supreme Court is therefore


1. These Guidelines are voluntary standards adopted by members of the state bar and news media to deal with the reporting of crimes and criminal trials. They outline the matters of fact that may appropriately be reported, and also list what items are not generally appropriate for reporting, including confessions, opinions on guilt or innocence, statements that would influence the outcome of a trial, the results of tests or examinations, comments on the credibility of witnesses, and evidence presented in the jury's absence. The publication of an accused's criminal record should, under the Guidelines, be "considered very carefully." The Guidelines also set out standards for taking and publishing photographs, and set up a joint bar-press committee to foster cooperation in resolving particular problems that emerge.

2. In the interim, petitioners applied to MR. JUSTICE BLACKMUN as Circuit Justice for a stay of the State District Court's order. He postponed ruling on the application out of deference to the Nebraska Supreme Court, 423 U.S. 1319 (Nov. 13, 1975) (in chambers); when he concluded that the delay before that court had "exceed[ed] tolerable limits," he entered an order. 423 U.S. 1327, 1329 (Nov. 20, 1975) (in chambers). We need not set out in detail MR. JUSTICE BLACKMUN's careful decision on this difficult issue. In essence he stayed the order insofar as it incorporated the admonitory Bar-Press Guidelines and prohibited reporting of some other matters. But he declined

at least on an application for a stay and at this distance, [to] impose a prohibition upon the Nebraska courts from placing any restrictions at all upon what the media may report prior to trial.

Id. at 1332. He therefore let stand that portion of the District Court's order that prohibited reporting the existence or nature of a confession, and declined to prohibit that court from restraining publication of facts that were so "highly prejudicial" to the accused or "strongly implicative" of him that they would "irreparably impair the ability of those exposed to them to reach an independent and impartial judgment as to guilt." Id. at 1333. Subsequently, petitioners applied for a more extensive stay; this was denied by the full Court. 423 U.S. 1027 (1975).

3. The Warren Commission conducting an inquiry into the murder of President Kennedy implied grave doubts whether, after the dissemination of "a great deal of misinformation" prejudicial to Oswald, a fair trial could be had. Report of the President's Commission on the Assassination of President John F. Kennedy 231 (1964). Probably the same could be said in turn with respect to a trial of Oswald's murderer even though a multitude were eyewitnesses to the guilty act. See generally id. at 231-242; Jaffe, Trial by Newspaper, 40 N.Y.U.L.Rev. 504 (1965); Powell, The Right to a Fair Trial, 51 A.B.A.J. 534 (1965).

4. The record also reveals that counsel for both sides acted responsibly in this case, and there is no suggestion that either sought to use pretrial news coverage for partisan advantage. A few days after the crime, newspaper accounts indicated that the prosecutor had announced the existence of a confession; we learned at oral argument that these accounts were false, although, in fact, a confession had been made. Tr. of Oral Arg. 337, 59.

5. In Near v. Minnesota, Mr. Chief Justice Hughes was also able to say:

There is also the conceded authority of courts to punish for contempt when publications directly tend to prevent the proper discharge of judicial functions.

283 U.S. at 715. A subsequent line of cases limited sharply the circumstances under which courts may exact such punishment. See Craig v. Harney, 331 U.S. 367 (1947); Pennekamp v. Florida, 328 U.S. 331 (1946); Bridges v. California, 314 U.S. 252 (1941). Because these cases deal with punishment based on contempt, however, they deal with problems substantially different from those raised by prior restraint. See also Barist, The First Amendment and Regulation of Prejudicial Publicity -- An Analysis, 36 Ford.L.Rev. 425, 433-442 (1968).

6. See A. Bickel, The Morality of Consent 61 (1975).

7. The respondent and intervenors argue here that a change of venue would not have helped, since Nebraska law permits a change only to adjacent counties, which had been as exposed to pretrial publicity in this case as Lincoln County. We have held that state laws restricting venue must on occasion yield to the constitutional requirement that the State afford a fair trial. Groppi v. Wisconsin, 400 U.S. 505 (1971). We note also that the combined population of Lincoln County and the adjacent counties is over 80,000, providing a substantial pool of prospective jurors.

8. Closing of pretrial proceedings with the consent of the defendant when required is also recommended in guidelines that have emerged from various studies. At oral argument, petitioners' counsel asserted that judicially imposed restraints on lawyers and others would be subject to challenge as interfering with press rights to news sources. Tr. of Oral Arg. 7-8. See, e.g., Chicago Council of Lawyers v. Bauer, 522 F.2d 242 (CA7 1975), cert. denied sub nom. Cunningham v. Chicago Council of Lawyers, post, p. 912. We are not now confronted with such issues.

We note that, in making its proposals, the American Bar Association recommended strongly against resort to direct restraints on the press to prohibit publication. American Bar Association Project on Standards for Criminal Justice, Fair Trial and Free Press 68-73 (App.Draft 1968). Other groups have reached similar conclusions. See Report of the Judicial Conference Committee on the Operation of the Jury System, "Free Press-Fair Trial" Issue, 45 F.R.D. 391, 401 403 (1968); Special Committee on Radio, Television, and the Administration of Justice of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York, Freedom of the Press and Fair Trial 111 (1967).

9. Here, for example, the Nebraska Supreme Court decided that the District Court had no jurisdiction of the petitioners except by virtue of their voluntary submission to the jurisdiction of that court when they moved to intervene. Except for the intervention which placed them within reach of the court, the Nebraska Supreme Court conceded, the petitioners "could have ignored the [restraining] order. . . ." State v. Simants, 194 Neb. 783, 795, 236 N.W.2d 794, 802 (1975).

10. Assuming, arguendo, that these problems are within reach of legislative enactment, or that some application of evolving concepts of long-arm jurisdiction would solve the problems of personal jurisdiction, even a cursory examination suggests how awkwardly broad prior restraints on publication, directed not at named parties but at large, would fit into our jurisprudence. The British experience is in sharp contrast for a variety of reasons; Great Britain has a smaller and unitary court system permitting the development of a manageable system of prior restraints by the application of the constructive contempt doctrine. Cf. n. 5, supra at 557; see generally Maryland v. Baltimore Radio Show, 338 U.S. 912, 921-936 (1950) (App. to opinion of Frankfurter, J., respecting denial of certiorari); Gillmor, Free Press and Fair Trial in English Law, 22 Wash. & Lee L.Rev. 17 (1965). Moreover, any comparison between the two systems must take into account that, although England gives a very high place to freedom of the press and speech, its courts are not subject to the explicit strictures of a written constitution.