When the President stopped the presses

Updated 10:45 AM ET, Tue November 21, 2017

Story highlights

  • Sonja West: Near v. Minnesota and the Pentagon Papers are two seminal free-press cases
  • Both ensure that journalists can publish classified information, writes West

Sonja West is the Brumby Distinguished Professor of First Amendment Law at the University of Georgia School of Law. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. This is the next installment in CNN Opinion's series on the challenges facing the media as it is under attack from critics, governments and changing technology.

(CNN)President Donald Trump has made it clear that when it comes to cracking down on government leaks to the media, "the tougher the better!" Yet for all of Trump's dire warnings about the dangers of leaks, there is one action that even he has not suggested -- a court order blocking the press from publishing leaked information.

Why would a president who calls journalists "the enemy of the American people" even hesitate to use the force of the law to stop the press from revealing classified information? Because the United States Supreme Court has told us that prior restraints (as such pre-publication orders are legally known) are presumptively unconstitutional.
Sonja West
This now-established vital press protection, however, was not always a given. In fact, it almost wasn't found to be a right at all. But in two landmark cases the Supreme Court cemented this freedom as a crucial safeguard in protecting America's free and independent press.

The Near case

The issue first came to the Court in 1931 in a case called Near v. Minnesota, which involved an unsympathetic and unlikely champion of the First Amendment -- Jay M. Near. Near was the bigoted and unscrupulous publisher of The Saturday Press, a Minneapolis scandal sheet that specialized in spreading generally true but frequently reckless accusations of local corruption. Each issue during the paper's short run featured hate-filled diatribes