This year marks the 90th anniversary of one of the most important days in the history of the First Amendment and freedom of expression in this country–and the event has roots here in the quad cities.
Beginning in June 1931, the U.S. Supreme Court decided the case of Near v. Minnesota, a landmark Constitutional case that would have ramifications near and far from here. Most people familiar with the Constitution and the First Amendment know about the case and its ruling: that the First Amendment bars governmental action suppressing or preventing publication or utterance of offensive communications, known as the doctrine proscribing “prior restraint.”
Few are aware of the role Robbinsdale played in the case.
The case arose out of a Hennepin County judge shuttering a newspaper called The Saturday Press, a muck-raking publication run by a pair of veteran journalists with somewhat shady pasts. Their goal, as proclaimed on the paper’s masthead, was to advocate for “Fair Play for the Underdog,” and it did a creditable job of exposing corruption in local government, particularly rampant in Minneapolis at the time. But the publication was imbued with racism and heavy doses of anti-semitism, a reflection of deep-seated predilections in the community.
The paper’s offensive nature, along with a few similar publications that arose in the post-World War I Roaring Twenties, prompted a 1925 state law allowing authorities to close newspapers on grounds that they constituted a “public nuisance” due to “malicious, scandalous, and defamatory” content.
The law was invoked by the then-County Attorney Floyd B. Olson, a north Minneapolis native, who later became an esteemed liberal governor of the state. But, in 1927, he used the measure to obtain an injunction proscribing publication of the Press, which was upheld by the state supreme court.
The case wound its way to the U. S. Supreme Court, which made history by declaring by a narrow 5-4 margin that the law transgressed freedom of expression in the First Amendment, a principle later to be applied in many different contexts.
The case was argued before the High Court at the end of Jan. 30, 1931, and it was decided four months on June 1.
While the case had momentous impact on the development of the law in this country, it had a discernible relationship with Robbinsdale, where one of the two proprietors of the Press, Howard Guilford, resided. He and his colleague, Jay Near, described their publication as an “ultra-intellectual” assault on high level corruption.
But it was not only intellectuals who paid attention to it. Shortly after launching the Press, Guilford was shot on his way to work by a couple of Chicago mob-related hit men. He was with his sister-in-law, at the intersection of Lowry and West Broadway, near the boundary of Robbinsdale and Minneapolis where his office was located.
A pair of suspects were arrested but never prosecuted. Upon his recovery, Guilford survived another attempt on his life while hospitalized, then continued the publication undaunted with Near, until it was suppressed by the authorities in 1927.
The Court’s ruling vindicated the publication. Remarking that “liberty of the press is indeed essential to the nature of a free state,” it granted Guilford’s newspaper and all others “immunity from previous restraints or censorship.” The decision became the foundation for the evolution over the years of freedom of expression.
Subdued and strident
Over time, Near became fatigued by the legal battle, but Guilford continued his stridency against the establishment of his day (and his racial and religious bigotry). Guilford remained in Robbinsdale until he fell victim to a second shooting, this time a fatal one, in south Minneapolis in 1934. With its Robbinsdale patriarch gone, the fledgling publication petered out within a few years.
Guilford was hardly a bastion of high character. He was involved in a number of seamy activities and brushes with the law, along with Near, the namesake of the High Court ruling. Still, their fight for principle, highlighted by the Supreme Court case 90 years ago, created an indelible legacy in the law and in journalism. The story of Robbinsdale’s Guilford–and that of his newspaper–epitomizes the saying by a later Supreme Court Justice, Felix Frankfurter, that important rights “frequently have been forged in controversies involving not very nice people.”