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Eight Great Court of the United States Decision on the First Amendment

Over the years, the Supreme Court of the United States has decided key cases on the topic of Freedom of Speech and Press. It is argued here that a United States Court of Appeals decision also remains notable over time because it shows continuing power as precedent. Here is a “GREAT EIGHT” list for you to study, seven U.S. Supreme Court decisions, plus one copyright case which never got to the Supreme Court. See whether you agree with the rankings of these cases, presented here in descending order.

  1. Near v. Minnesota, 683 U.S. 697 (1931). Set boundaries for government use of pre-publication censorship.

  2. New York Times v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964). Protects media against libel suits by public officials unless they can meet the strict “actual malice” standard of proof. Emphasized the importance of a free press to a free society.

  3. Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323 (1974). Explained categories of libel plaintiffs (public official, public figure, private person) and the standards of proof (“fault”) they must show to collect compensatory damages, punitive damages, or both.

  4. Grosjean v. American Press Co., 297 U.S. 233 (1936). Government may tax media like other businesses, but it may not use taxes to punish or discriminate against the press. Two principles: “The power to tax is the power to destroy.” Discriminatory taxation of media is forbidden by the First Amendment.

  5. New York Times Co. v. United States, 403 U.S. 713 (1971), the “Pentagon Papers case.” Forty years after the Near v. Minnesota decision limited pre-publication censorship, a study classified “Top Secret” and done for the Department of Defense was leaked to Times reporter Neil Sheehan. Although the U.S. Supreme Court rejected prior restraint to stop the Times’ stories about the “Pentagon Papers,” the Court’s 6-3 vote boiled down to a statement that the U.S. Department of Justice had not proven its case.

  6. Gitlow v. New York, 268 U.S. 652 (1925) It may be argued that the Gitlow decision was a major step toward nationalizing the First Amendment, toward applying it to the states. Note that the First Amendment’s language, beginning with the words “Congress shall make no law . . .” long was held to apply only to the national or federal government.

  7. Rosemont Enterprises, Inc. v. Random House, Inc. and John Keats, 366 F.2d 303 (U.S.C.A., 1966). Because of the influential Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Leonard P. Moore, his ruling in a “fair use” copyright decision broadened the freedom to use copyrighted works in the public interest. Beside setting that legal precedent, his words on fair use in the Rosemont decision ten years later infleunced the nation’s key copyright enactment, the Copyright Act of 1976.

  8. [The dissenting opinion in] Abrams v. United States, 250 U.S. 616 (1919). During the war hysteria of World War I, Jacob Abrams was convicted of violating the Espionage Act of 1917 and its 1918 “sedition”amendment. In dissent, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes denounced Abrams’ conviction. Justice Holmes adapted the legendary poet John Milton’s free speech ideas into what has become a famous free-expression slogan: the “marketplace of ideas.” The passionate statement for freedom in this dissent may be traced to decisions later decisions favoring free expression.

You may download the contents of this page and all 8 cases here.