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This Critical Debate is part of a Debate Comparison:

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30-60 minutes
  • Journalism
  • Politics
  • Supreme Court
  • 9-12
  • College/University

Does freedom of the press protect publication of personal attacks, unfounded rumors and racist opinions?

Jay Near and Howard Guilford are reporters on a mission to fight corruption and gang rule in Minneapolis. In September 1927, Near and Guilford launch a newspaper called The Saturday Press. They are known for their ability to ferret out damning gossip – and also for their bigoted views, frequently blaming Minneapolis’s problems on Catholics, Jews and blacks. The weekly publication follows the model of a “news rag” or “scandal sheet,” printing sensational, tabloid-style stories and abrasive opinions.

Minneapolis Police Chief Frank Brunskill and Floyd B. Olson, the county attorney and aspiring politician, are among the targets of criticism in The Saturday Press. Brunskill responds by trying to ban the paper, citing a 1925 city ordinance that prohibits publication of obscene material. He destroys all copies of the first edition, but Near and Guilford continue to publish. Olson asks a judge to permanently shut down the Press. He cites a Minnesota law that allows a judge, without a jury, to permanently ban a newspaper or magazine from publishing if the judge finds it to be “obscene, lewd and lascivious” or “malicious, scandalous, and defamatory.” This law is commonly known as the “gag law.”

The judge agrees with Olson and bans The Saturday Press, but Near and Guilford force a Supreme Court battle over whether the gag law violates the First Amendment.

Take the role of a historical figure below and find evidence to argue your case.

  1. Jay Near and Howard Guilford, publishers of 'The Saturday Press'
    Jay Near and Howard Guilford printed a notice on the front page of the Nov. 19, 1927, issue urging defiance of the attempt by Minneapolis city officials to censor the paper.
    Courtesy Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division/Star Tribune and Minnesota Historical Society

    Jay Near and Howard Guilford, publishers of 'The Saturday Press'

    We should be free to publish whatever we want in our newspaper, even if it offends those in power.

    "Our hour of ‘passive resistance’ has passed. Display Saturday Press exactly as you do other papers or magazines in your place of business. If you are molested in their sale by the police, refuse to remove them. ... We will furnish the legal talent necessary for a ‘show down’ in the courts."

    — A notice “To All News Dealers!” on the front page of the Nov. 19, 1927, edition of the 'Press'
  2. Robert McCormick, Publisher of the 'Chicago Tribune'
    At 6-foot-4 and weighing over 200 pounds, Robert McCormick was a physically intimidating man.
    The Associated Press

    Robert McCormick, publisher of the 'Chicago Tribune'

    Although The Saturday Press is not an example of journalism at its finest, restricting the press in this case could threaten more respectable publications, and that would not be acceptable.

    "The refusal to repeal [the "gag law"] indicates beyond all question that the enactment of the law was a deliberate attempt to strangle criticism in a way which enlightened men have rejected as unsound politically and morally for nearly 300 years."

    — Excerpt from a 'Chicago Tribune' editorial published on March 28, 1929
  3. Floyd Olson, Hennepin County (Minn.) Attorney
    Floyd Olson was a frequent target of criticism and ridicule in The Saturday Press.
    Minnesota Historical Society

    Floyd Olson, county attorney and aspiring politician

    Those of us who represent law and order have a responsibility to prevent the publication of information that slanders the people in power and could cause trouble in our communities.

    Near and Guilford can't engage in "producing, publishing, editing ... [or] giving away a malicious, scandalous, and defamatory publication known as 'The Saturday Press' ... in the State of Minnesota."

    — Excerpt from a judge's injunction against 'The Saturday Press'
  4. Minnesota Supreme Court, circa 1930
    The court wrote that the public nuisance law "is for the protection of the public welfare," and thus not a violation of the First Amendment.
    Minnesota Historical Society

    Minnesota Supreme Court; heard and ruled on the case before it went to the U.S. Supreme Court

    Freedom of the press should apply to journalists seeking to be honest and factual in their reporting; this is the only way to protect the public welfare.

    "It is the use and not the abuse of the liberty of the press that is guarded by our fundamental law. Liberty of the press and freedom of speech ... do not mean the unrestrained privilege to write and say what one pleases at all times under all circumstances."

    — Majority opinion of the Minnesota Supreme Court in the case of State Ex Rel. Olson v. Guilford

  • Who should be the arbiter of “good taste” or what’s fit to publish?
  • Is there social value to a “scandal sheet?”
  • Should publish officials be protected from accusations of wrongdoing? Why or why not?
  • Does the threat of civil unrest justify banning a publication? What if the threat turns into violence?
  • How else would you fight against corruption?

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