What Is Prior Restraint? Definition and Examples

When is the government allowed to censor pre-published material?

The New York Daily News on a printing press.

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Prior restraint is a type of censorship in which speech or expression is reviewed and restricted before it occurs. Under prior restraint, a government or authority controls what speech or expression can be publicly released.

Prior restraint has a history of being viewed as a form of oppression in the United States. The Founding Fathers had experienced the effects of prior restraint while under British rule, and they specifically used language in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitutionfreedom of speech and freedom of the pressto guard against prior restraint, which they felt was a violation of democratic principles.

Key Takeaways: Prior Restraint

  • Prior restraint is the review and restriction of speech prior to its release.
  • Under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which protects speech and freedom of the press, prior restraint is deemed unconstitutional.
  • There are some exceptions to prohibitions against prior restraint, including obscenity and national security.
  • Famous cases dealing with prior restraint include Near v. Minnesota, New York Times Co. v. U.S., Nebraska Press Association v. Stuart, and Brandenberg v. Ohio.

Prior Restraint Definition

Prior restraint is not limited to speech. It can impact all forms of expression including writing, art, and media. It legally takes the form of licenses, gag orders, and injunctions. The government might outright prevent public distribution of media, or place conditions on speech that make it difficult for it to occur. Something as seemingly harmless as a town ordinance restricting where newspapers can be sold could be considered prior restraint.

Exceptions to the Prior Restraint Doctrine

U.S. courts view prior restraint as unconstitutional until proven otherwise. The government entity or organization looking to review and restrict speech must offer an extremely compelling reason for the restriction to even be considered. Courts have recognized some of these reasons as exceptions to the general illegality of prior restraint.

  • Obscenity: U.S. Courts have decided that the distribution of certain "obscene" material can be limited in order to preserve public decency. "Obscene" material is a limited category. Pornographic material on its own might not be considered obscene. However, obscenity applies to pornographic material that features unwilling or underage participants.
  • Court documents: Most court documents like land deeds, complaints, and marriage licenses are publicly available. A court may place an injunction (a restriction) on court records during an ongoing criminal case to prevent public disclosure. Outside of an injunction, publishing information that may damage a case can be penalized but cannot be used as an exception to allow prior restraint.
  • National Security: Some of the most powerful and significant arguments in favor of prior restraint came from the publication of government documents. The government has a compelling interest in keeping defense documents classified if they might jeopardize ongoing military action, particularly during wartime. However, courts have determined that the government must prove an inevitable, direct, and immediate danger, in order to justify reviewing and restricting publication in the name of national security.

Major Cases Involving Prior Restraint

The most famous cases concerning prior restraint form the foundation of free expression in the U.S. They are cross-disciplinary, focusing on art, speeches, and documents.

Near v. Minnesota

Near v. Minnesota was one of the first U.S. Supreme Court cases to take on the issue of prior restraint. In 1931, J.M. Near published the first issue of The Saturday Press, a controversial, independent paper. The governor of Minnesota at the time filed a complaint under the state's public nuisance law for an injunction against the paper. He alleged that The Saturday Press was "malicious, scandalous, and defamatory," qualities which were illegal under the law. In a 5-4 decision delivered by Justice Charles E. Hughes, the court found the statute unconstitutional. The government cannot restrict publication prior to the release date, even if the material being published might be illegal.

New York Times Co. v. United States

In 1971, the Nixon administration attempted to block the publication of a group of documents known as the Pentagon Papers. The papers were part of a study commissioned by the Department of Defense to document U.S. military involvement in Vietnam. The Nixon Administration argued that if the New York Times published information from the study, it would harm U.S. defense interests. Six Supreme Court justices sided with the New York Times, denying the government's request for an injunction. The Court adopted a "heavy presumption" against prior restraint under the First Amendment. The government's interest in keeping the papers secret could not provide a strong enough reason to restrict the freedom of the press. In a concurring opinion, Justice William J. Brennan added that the government did not offer evidence that the papers would result in "direct" and "immediate" harm to U.S. troops.

Nebraska Press Association v. Stuart

In 1975, a Nebraska state trial judge issued a gag order. He was concerned that media coverage of a murder trial might prevent the court from seating an unbiased jury. The Supreme Court heard the case a year later. In a unanimous decision delivered by Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, the court struck down the gag order. The court argued that restricting media coverage did little to help ensure a fair trial and allowed rumors to overcome factual reporting. The press should not be hindered except in situations where there is a "clear and present danger" that the media will disrupt the trial, Justice Burger wrote. The court listed ways that a fair trial could be ensured without the use of a gag order.

Brandenberg v. Ohio

In 1964, a Klu Klux Klan leader in Ohio delivered a speech at a rally using derogative and racist language. He was arrested under Ohio's syndicalism law for publicly advocating for violence. Clarence Brandenburg was convicted and sentenced and his appeals were affirmed or dismissed by lower courts. The Supreme Court reversed his conviction on the basis that Ohio's syndicalism law violated the First Amendment. The court ignored prior language surrounding inciting violence like "clear and present danger" and "bad tendency." In Brandenburg v. Ohio, the Court unanimously backed the "imminent and lawless action" test. In order to restrict speech for inciting violence, the government must provide a compelling argument to show intent, imminence, and likelihood to incite.


  • Near v. Minnesota, 283 U.S. 697 (1931).
  • Brandenburg v. Ohio, 395 U.S. 444 (1969).
  • Nebraska Press Assn. v. Stuart, 427 U.S. 539 (1976).
  • New York Times Co. v. United States, 403 U.S. 713 (1971).
  • Howard, Hunter O. “Toward a Better Understanding of the Prior Restraint Doctrine: A Reply to Professor Mayton.” Cornell Law Review, vol. 67, no. 2, Jan. 1982, scholarship.law.cornell.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://www.google.com/&httpsredir=1&article=4267&context=clr.
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Spitzer, Elianna. "What Is Prior Restraint? Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo, Aug. 29, 2020, thoughtco.com/prior-restraint-definition-4688890. Spitzer, Elianna. (2020, August 29). What Is Prior Restraint? Definition and Examples. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/prior-restraint-definition-4688890 Spitzer, Elianna. "What Is Prior Restraint? Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/prior-restraint-definition-4688890 (accessed June 1, 2023).