I'm trying to better understand this comment (and its implications):

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In a pure hypothetical (so as to avoid any speculation on whether or not it happened), if the US Government were to be found to have ordered a private media company to suppress a story (or stories), would that kind of behaviour constitute a violation of the first amendment, and if so, what are the possible consequences (e.g. is the a range of penalties)?

  • Although not on the SE network, somewhat related.
    – stevec
    Dec 3, 2022 at 3:50

1 Answer 1


This page lists the highlights of case law regarding prior restraint and the First Amendment. Two pertinent cases are New York Times Co. v. United States, where the court held that despite the potential harm of publishing the revealed information, the prior restraint doctrine was more important (the government cannot prohibit speech before it happens). Reno v. ACLU affirms that even if a publication might cause harm to a class of people, that (limited) harm does not justify universally prohibiting the speech.

There is no criminal penalty arising from the government censoring speech. A civil lawsuit – "section 1983" – is possible against an official who illegally attempts to suppress expression contra the First Amendment. The award might be just a dollar if the person so oppressed cannot prove actual damage. Technically, the sky is the limit, and it just depends on how outrageous the jury finds the government's action. If the government were to order suppression of opposition to its policies, we could easily be in the territory of world-record awards for violation of civil rights.

  • 1
    Publication of nuclear weapons information/secrets may be a different matter, though it's poorly tested in the courts as the government and defendants both rarely want to push it far enough to go all the way to a SCOTUS precedent (or to court at all). The prior restraint doctrine has been expected to win out, but it's just not gotten far enough to know. But the government has had at least some success, even fairly recently, in interfering with publications concerning nuclear weapons. Dec 3, 2022 at 3:07
  • I think that an answer is not complete if it doesn't mention the notion of being a "state actor", because the question did ask whether the behaviour would count as an Amendment 1 violation, and the notion of being a "state actor" is fundamental to that.
    – JdeBP
    Dec 6, 2022 at 5:09

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