Nebraska Press Association v. Stuart is the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision involving a classic free press/fair trial conflict. And it all began in North Platte, Nebraska.
In fact, it was Keith Blackledge, editor of the North Platte Telegraph, who initially fought the judges’ orders to gag reporters during court proceedings involving a heinous crime committed near North Platte in 1975. One year later, the United States Supreme Court handed the press a significant victory ruling that a trial judge does not have the authority to restrict media coverage prior to jury selection unless under the most extreme circumstances. But the time preceding the decision was filled with the consuming effort of battling the issue in courtrooms and on street corners.
The case began when six individuals—three of them children—of the Henry Kellie family were murdered on October 18, 1975, in Sutherland, about 20 miles west of North Platte The female victims had been sexually assaulted post-mortem.
There was conflict from the very beginning. Harold Kay is the person speaking on this video snippet. Kay was the attorney of record when the first gag order was issued. Without Kay’s expertise, this case would never have reached the highest court in the land.
Out of concern that the sensational circumstances surrounding the crime might preclude the fair trial of the accused, Erwin Charles Simants, the Lincoln County judge issued an order that allowed news reporters to attend the pre-trial hearing, but prevented them from reporting any testimony presented there. Blackledge and the Telegraph soon were joined by newspapers and media organizations from throughout the state in the First Amendment battle. Eventually the conflict drew national press interest.
Ultimately, there would be four gag orders issued throughout the pre-trial period. One of the gags came from the Lincoln County District Court Judge Hugh Stuart, which set into motion a clash between Stuart and Blackledge that lasted for years.
Notably, the public in and around North Platte did not support the Telegraph. Readers weren’t interested in First Amendment issues. They wanted Simants tried, convicted—and executed!
The unanimous decision in Nebraska Press Association v. Stuart was handed down by the court June 30, 1976. The nation’s high court found restrictions imposed against the press in the criminal proceedings of Simants to be a violation of the First Amendment.
As for Erwin Charles Simants, a jury found him not responsible of the murders because he was insane at the time of the killings. Since 1979 he has been confined at the Lincoln Regional Center. To this day, and, perennially, he is denied release. During his most recent competency evaluation, on December, 2020, the judge found the 74-year-old to be mentally ill and dangerous.
The Supreme Court archive site Oyez.com features multiple documents relating to the NPA v. Stuart case. Visitors can read/hear the oral arguments as well as the opinion announcement. There are also links to the actual case opinion and case syllabus.
To view a detailed timeline of events of the NPA v. Stuart case, visit our Timelines page: