Marking a big Supreme Court victory for press freedom

Monday, May 23, 2011

Forty-five years ago today the U.S. Supreme Court protected press freedoms by ruling in Mills v. Alabama (1966) that a state could not prohibit election-day editorials in newspapers.

James E. Mills, the editor of the Birmingham Post-Herald, ran afoul of Alabama’s so-called Corrupt Practices Act, which made it a crime “to do any electioneering or to solicit any votes … in support of or in opposition to any proposition that is being voted on in the day on which the election affecting such candidates or propositions is being held.”

The newspaper had run an editorial on election day, Nov. 6, 1962, in support of a city initiative to establish a “mayor-council” government in Birmingham to replace its city-commission form of government. The editorial also severely criticized the existing city government.

A state trial court judge had ruled the law unconstitutional, but the Alabama Supreme Court reversed and ruled that Mills should have to stand trial. On appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court struck the Alabama law down on First Amendment grounds.

Justice Hugo L. Black, an Alabamian, wrote for the Court: “Whatever differences may exist about interpretations of the First Amendment, there is practically universal agreement that a major purpose of that Amendment was to protect free discussion of governmental affairs.”

He also emphasized the special role of the press in American society and the free-press clause in the First Amendment: “The Constitution specifically selected the press, which includes not only newspapers, books, and magazines, but also humble leaflets and circulars, to play an important role in the discussion of public affairs.”

According to Black, “The press serves and was designed to serve as a powerful antidote to any abuses of power by governmental officials and as a constitutionally chosen means for keeping officials elected by the people responsible to all the people whom they were selected to serve.”

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