Prior Restraint Definition and Legal Meaning

On this page, you'll find the legal definition and meaning of Prior Restraint, written in plain English, along with examples of how it is used.

What is Prior Restraint?

It is a form of censorship by the government where it prevents or stops the publication of certain material or broadcasting of certain unwanted speeches.

History and Meaning of Prior Restraint

Prior restraint is a legal term in the United States that refers to the censorship of speech or publication by the government before it is printed or broadcast. This type of censorship is generally viewed as a violation of freedom of speech and press, which are guaranteed by the First Amendment. Prior restraint is often considered one of the most serious violations of free speech, as it prevents individuals from expressing themselves or publishing information that may be important to the public.

The use of prior restraint dates back to the English legal system, where censorship was used to control speech and prevent criticism of the monarchy. In the United States, prior restraint has been used in a few high-profile cases, including the Pentagon Papers and the publication of classified information by Edward Snowden. However, the Supreme Court has consistently ruled that prior restraint is unconstitutional, and it is rarely used in modern times.

Examples of Prior Restraint

  1. In the 1971 case of New York Times v. United States, the Nixon administration attempted to stop the publication of classified documents related to the Vietnam War, known as the Pentagon Papers. The Supreme Court ruled that the government's attempt at prior restraint was unconstitutional, and the documents were allowed to be published.

  2. In 2013, former government contractor Edward Snowden leaked classified information about government surveillance programs to several newspapers. The government attempted to prevent the publication of this information through prior restraint, but ultimately failed to do so.

  3. In 2017, President Trump threatened to use prior restraint to stop the publication of Fire and Fury, a book that contained unflattering information about his administration. However, the book was still published and became a bestseller.

Legal Terms Similar to Prior Restraint

  1. Content-based restrictions: These are laws or regulations that restrict speech based on the content of the speech. The Supreme Court has ruled that these restrictions are subject to strict scrutiny and are often found to be unconstitutional.

  2. Time, place, and manner restrictions: These are laws or regulations that restrict speech based on when, where, or how the speech is delivered. These restrictions are viewed as less invasive than prior restraint and are often allowed as long as they are content-neutral.

  3. Defamation: This is a tort that involves the publication of false statements that harm someone's reputation. Defamation is not subject to prior restraint, but individuals can be sued for damages if they publish defamatory statements.