lawzmag.comThis 1931 case is a landmark judgement highlighting the constitutional protection given to the freedom of the press.

In this case, the County Attorney of Hennepin County brought an action against “The Saturday Press,” published by the Defendants in the city of Minneapolis. The Complainant alleged that the Defendants published and circulated editions of the above named periodical which were largely devoted to “malicious, scandalous and defamatory articles” concerning Charles G. Davis, a Special Law Enforcement Officer employed by a civic organization, Frank W. Brunskill, who was the Chief of Police, the Minneapolis Tribune, the Minneapolis Journal, Melvin C. Passolt, George E. Leach,  who was Mayor of Minneapolis, the Jewish race, the Members of the Grand Jury of Hennepin County  then holding office, Floyd B. Olson (the relator in this action),who was County Attorney, and other persons.

Chief Justice Hughes delivered the opinion of the Court, stating therein that the articles charged in substance that a Jewish gangster was in control of gambling, bootlegging and racketeering in Minneapolis, and that law enforcing officers and agencies were not performing their duty up to the mark. Most of the charges were directed against the Chief of Police, who was charged with gross neglect of duty, having illicit relations with the gangsters, and with participation in graft. The County Attorney was charged with being fully aware of the same situation and not taking adequate measures to snub them. The Mayor was accused of inefficiency and dereliction. It was stated in the complaint that one member of the Grand Jury had sympathy with the gangsters.

It was opined by the Chief Justice that the 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 consisting of charges against public officers of official dereliction-and unless the owner or publisher is able to bring competent evidence to satisfy the judge  that  the charges are true and are published with good motives, and for justifiable ends, his newspaper or periodical is suppressed and further publication is made punishable as a contempt. This is of the essence of censorship. But the question is whether a statute authorizing such restraint of publication is consistent with the conception of the liberty of the press as historically conceived and guaranteed. In determining the extent of the constitutional protection, it has been generally, if not universally, considered that it is the chief purpose of the guaranty to prevent previous restraints upon publication.

The statute in question cannot be justified by reason of the fact that the publisher is permitted to show, before injunction issues, that the matter published is true and is published with good motives and for justifiable ends. If such a statute, authorizing suppression and injunction on such a basis, is constitutionally valid, it would be equally permissible for the legislature to provide that at any time the publisher of any newspaper could be brought before a court, or even an administrative officer and required to produce proof of the truth of his publication, or of what he intended to publish, and of his motives, or stand enjoined. If this can be done, the legislature may provide machinery for determining in the complete exercise of its discretion what are justifiable ends and restrain publication accordingly. And it would be but a step to a complete system of censorship. The recognition of authority to impose previous restraint upon publication in order to protect the community against the circulation of charges of misconduct, and especially of official misconduct, necessarily would carry with it the admission of the authority of the censor against which the constitutional barrier was erected.

Venkataramiah, J. of the Supreme Court of India in Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) (P) Ltd. v. Union of India has stated:
“In today’s free world freedom of press is the heart of social and political intercourse. The press has now assumed the role of the public educator making formal and non-formal education possible in a large scale particularly in the developing world, where television and other kinds of modern communication are not still available for all sections of society. The purpose of the press is to advance the public interest by publishing facts and opinions without which a democratic electorate [Government] cannot make responsible judgments. Newspapers being purveyors of news and views having a bearing on public administration very often carry material which would not be palatable to Governments and other authorities.”

The above statement of the Supreme Court illustrates that the freedom of press is essential for the proper functioning of the democratic process. Democracy means Government of the people, by the people and for the people; it is obvious that every citizen must be entitled to participate in the democratic process and in order to enable him to intelligently exercise his right of making a choice, free and general discussion of public matters is absolutely essential. This explains the constitutional viewpoint of the freedom of press in India.

The fundamental principle which was involved in freedom of press is the “people’s right to know”. It therefore received a generous support from all those who believe in the free flow of the information and participation of the people in the administration; it is the primary duty of all national courts to uphold this freedom and invalidate all laws or administrative actions which interfere with this freedom, are contrary to the constitutional mandate.

Therefore, in view of the observations made by the Hon’ble Supreme Court in various judgments and the views expressed by various jurists, it is crystal clear that the freedom of the press flows from the freedom of expression which is guaranteed to “all citizens” by Article 19(1)(a). Press stands on no higher footing than any other citizen and cannot claim any privilege (unless conferred specifically by law), as such, as distinct from those of any other citizen. The press cannot be subjected to any special restrictions which could not be imposed on any citizen of the country.

The fact that for approximately one hundred and fifty years there has been an almost entire absence of attempts to impose previous restraints upon publications relating to the malfeasance of public officers is significant of the deep seated conviction of the judiciary that such restraints would violate constitutional rights.

It has been generally, if not universally, considered that it is the chief purpose of the guaranty to prevent previous restraints upon publication.

-LawZ Bureau


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