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When rights collide: Nebraska Press Association v. Stuart (1976) and the recurring tension between free press and fair trial

Mark R Scherer, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


On the evening of October 18, 1975, police in the western Nebraska village of Sutherland found six members of the Henry Kellie family viciously murdered in their home. As police arrived at the crime scene, so did journalists from all over the region, clamoring for details. The next morning, authorities arrested Erwin Charles Simants, who quickly confessed to the murders. Over the ensuing days, news media from around the country descended on the area to report on the shocking story. ^ As the media attention intensified, the attorneys and judges involved in the case became increasingly concerned about their ability to seat an “impartial jury” for Simants' trial. Those concerns ultimately led to the issuance of a “gag order” by District Judge Hugh Stuart, prohibiting the press from publishing certain details about the case, including information that reporters could obtain while attending court sessions that were open to the public. ^ The Nebraska Press Association and other media organizations immediately attacked Stuart's gag order, arguing that it was an unconstitutional “prior restraint” of the press, violating their First Amendment rights. The litigation ultimately made its way to the United States Supreme Court, where the gag order was unanimously overturned. Nebraska Press Association v. Stuart became a landmark ruling in American constitutional history and remains today one of the high court's most significant statements on the troublesome and recurring conflict between the rights of free press and fair trial. ^ This case biography seeks to explore the Nebraska Press Association litigation comprehensively and compellingly, blending traditional legal analysis of the decision's “paper trail” with interviews of some of the key participants. It is a narrative that seeks to reveal not only the important legal and historical dimensions of the case, but also the human elements that produced this important decision—the stories of journalists, attorneys, and judges who sought to juggle the competing interests at stake in the most trying and emotional of circumstances. ^

Subject Area

History, United States|Law

Recommended Citation

Scherer, Mark R, "When rights collide: Nebraska Press Association v. Stuart (1976) and the recurring tension between free press and fair trial" (2003). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. AAI3092590.