In Craig v. Harney, 331 U.S. 367 (1947), the Supreme Court cited freedom of speech and press grounds to overturn a criminal contempt of court conviction against a publisher, an editorial writer, and a newspaper reporter for stories they ran about a case being tried by a local judge who was a layman. The trial judge had concluded that the writings improperly had been designed to influence his decision in the pending case, and a Texas court of criminal appeals had agreed.

In the opinion for the Court, Justice William O. Douglas noted that Texas had not given adequate attention to the decisions in Nye v. United States (1941), Bridges v. California (1941), and Pennekamp v. Florida (1946). Douglas asserted that courts should only use criminal contempt in instances involving a clear and present danger to the administration of justice. He stated that although the articles were not accurate, such inaccuracies were “commonplace” and not criminal. He characterized the editorial as “strong,” “intemperate,” and perhaps “unfair,” but then said that it did not “immediately imperil” justice. “Judges are supposed to be men of fortitude, able to thrive in a hardy climate.” Justice Francis W. Murphy’s concurring opinion stressed the importance of the free press and the dangers of giving judges summary powers to punish it.

In a dissent joined by Chief Justice Frederick M. Vinson, Justice Felix Frankfurter attempted to distinguish prior cases from this one by suggesting that state courts had greater power under their laws to issue contempts than did federal courts. Frankfurter cited Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.’s language in Patterson v. Colorado (1907) on the importance of having judges influenced by what happened in the court as opposed to outside criticisms. Frankfurter feared that the editorials constituted such outside influences. Frankfurter thought that states had the power to prevent the “psychological danger” of improper influence. Justice Robert H. Jackson’s dissent emphasized the importance of “a calm and fair trial free from outside pressures and influences.” He noted that the case at hand involved a civil lawsuit in a case in which the judge was not a lawyer and may not have been as confident in his professional opinions.

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