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In actual history, the Supreme Court ruled in 1971 in New York Times v. US that prior restraint is illegal, upholding its earlier decision in 1931 in Near v. Minnesota.

In my alternate history, the Supreme Court rules that the US does not have to prove that publication would cause irreparable harm to national security in order to prior restrain publication. This does not overturn Near v. Minnesota, but rather broadens the scope of its exceptions.

Nixon, still fearing a left-wing radical conspiracy to delegitimize his administration following the publication of the Pentagon Papers, sends a bill to Congress called the News Management Act. This calls for the creation of the Department of News Management (henceforth DNM), which would require all newspapers to submit their copies and get pre-approval from the government before publication. Likewise, news channels need to send scripts to the government before going to air. If they report without pre-approval, they risk being shut down. This gets approved in late 1973.1

Of course, the newspapers sue on the grounds of violation of the First Amendment. Shortly before the Watergate break-in, the Supreme Court rules that the DNM is legal, as it only prevents national security-related matters from being published; all other articles are still able to be published, and so freedom of the press is preserved.

The government being the government, this freedom is used for political gain, under the guise of national security. ("If that person gets elected, the whole country will be invaded by Commies!") And how can anyone complain - what are they going to do, print it in the papers? That would delegitimize the sitting President, leading to national security issues.

The first major change would be Nebraska Press Association v. Stuart in 1976, where, in actual history, the Supreme Court ruled that, since prior restraint is illegal, the media is free to print whatever they want about ongoing court cases without worrying about influencing the jury. Because in this alternate timeline prior restraint is perfectly legal for "national security," the government is free to influence cases by choosing which ones the news can report on.

As a corollary to the previous point, I don't think Chappaquiddick (which I'm aware happened before Nebraska) or Whitewater would have ended differently. Neither Nixon nor Bush 41 would feel it's worth censoring. Nixon probably would make sure that Chappaquiddick gets aired so that Ted Kennedy doesn't run in '72 and '76, as actually happened.

Really, I think history would overall remain the same (except for the public distrust of the media) until the late 2000's, with the advent of social media. Now people are getting their news online in the masses. The government doesn't like this loophole and passes the Internet News Management Act in 2007, extending the DNM's censorship to the Internet. This means that any news site or social media platform must be moderated by the government before anything is published.

As the Internet gets larger and larger, the government struggles to keep up. A new division of the DNM is opened to work on this problem specifically. Because of this new problem, AI research is advanced by several years, and in late 2012, the DNM begins to employ new algorithms to help with the monitoring. The entire Internet is monitored by early 2016. Websites operating inside the US are blocked from publishing certain content and are taken down if they find a way to bypass the filters. Ones operating outside the US are simply blocked from entering.

Because the Internet, television, and print media are all being censored, Snowden no longer has a way to send PRISM to the masses in 2013, and we remain in the dark about the NSA's spying. (He could post it on blogs or whatever, as it's not until 2016 that the entire Internet is moderated, but it wouldn't become as widespread.) I think the privacy vs. security debate would start eventually, probably with 2016's San Bernardino case.

The one thing I'm unclear about is the 2016 election. There's no more election meddling, and I strongly believe that, because of Obama and Clinton's relationship, the media would be heavily slanted to the left at that point. What I'm unclear about is how this impacts the election: does Clinton now get elected, or would those who'd vote for Trump anyway still land him the majority in the electoral college?

1In an earlier draft, I said that the DNM was established fairly quickly, in early 1972. At first I thought that Watergate would happen pretty much the same way; the only thing that changes is that Woodward and Bernstein are unable to publish their articles in the Post about it. The burglars still plead guilty to perjury under pressure, and the case is led toward Nixon, who eventually resigns. However, I'm not sure anymore how important the Post's articles were, and to avoid this issue, I'm now saying that since bureaucracy takes time, the DNM doesn't get established until later 1973 - after Watergate has already sufficiently broken that covering up the story makes him look worse. Nixon still resigns in 1974, succeeded by Ford.


My main question is: is this a plausible timeline resulting from the Supreme Court ruling that prior restraint is legal?

I'd especially like to hear the legal ramifications of this, as while I've done a bit of legal research, is it likely that the theoretical 1972 lawsuit regarding the legality of the DNM would be ruled in favor of the government, given that the Pentagon Papers ruling was also ruled in favor of the government?


Some of you in the comments theorized that the Presidents elected in the interim may not have been elected in such a world. I'll have to look into their respective platforms, and especially their relationships with the candidates of the succeeding elections, but at the moment I feel secure in saying that, besides the 2016 election, the Presidential roster remains the same.

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    $\begingroup$ Looks pretty realistic to me. And I wanna read your book! $\endgroup$ – Cyn Jan 7 at 16:32
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    $\begingroup$ @Cyn I'll let you know when it comes out. :) $\endgroup$ – DonielF Jan 7 at 16:33
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    $\begingroup$ Please note that (1) the United Kingdom and other countries ruled by Her Most Gracious Majesty Queen Elizabeth II actually have laws which allow for superinjunctions prohibiting the publication of certain information, for whatever reason (because they would influence a trial at law, because they would make the establishment look bad, because the judge says so). (2) The internet actually is monitored. (3) Encryption exists. PGP was made available worldwide in 1995. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Jan 7 at 16:39
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    $\begingroup$ No. That one vote is nowhere near enough. Don't let that stop you. Just because the lawyers among your readers will be required to choke down their disbelief doesn't mean everyone else wouldn't completely enjoy your story. $\endgroup$ – JBH Jan 7 at 16:42
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    $\begingroup$ ATTENTION VTCers! We invite reality-check questions because explaining the feasibility of a proposition requires justification on the part of the answerer. There is enough history that this question can be answered with reasonable objectivity. The question is not too-story-based or POB thanks to the reality-check requirement. If you disagree with my comment, please provide credentials. I'd trust an attorney like a4android, but everyone else is just guessing as to whether or not it's TSB or POB. $\endgroup$ – JBH Jan 7 at 20:37
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The timeline is plausible (even if the premise is questionable).

I don't see any catastrophic issues with the details of your timeline as you've laid it out. So in short, my answer to your question is yes.

I'm sure you'd like some more feedback than that, though. So first, here's a few points I would like to address about your scenario:

  1. "Neither Nixon nor Bush 41 would feel it's worth censoring." Politicians will do whatever benefits them politically. If the fallout from censoring is less than the fallout from not censoring, they will choose the former if it's within their power.

  2. The government already has tools to to examine Internet data, and it would be possible to pass laws to further ease their ability to do so. For example, requiring network hardware manufactures to include software allowing government back door access into systems (which is obviously a potential weakness that a third party could exploit). Such technology already exists so it's demonstrably possible. Enforcing the use of "government approved" network hardware could involve validation of this software's existence in internet requests. It would still be possible to fool, but it's a potential element to consider.

    But that doesn't stop sources outside the US from releasing the information. The government would still block anything it didn't like regardless of it's point of origin, but there's nothing stopping Snowden from bringing a flash drive to a WikiLeaks-esque organization based outside of the US for the rest of the world to see. And once something's out of the bottle, it's hard to put it back in.

  3. The 2016 election outcome: Tough to say. For starters, you can be sure that essentially any and all of the negative press Sen. Clinton received for her ill-advised communication practices would have been quashed. Speaking generally, I would incline toward a left-leaning press having an even easier time propping up liberal candidates and negatively portraying conservative candidates (that is to say, objectively speaking, the majority of news media tends to lean toward the liberal side of things, and I'm assuming the political climate in your scenario is comparable to our present day environment). So, if you would prefer a Clinton victory in your story, it would be believable, though I still see it being a tight race. Personally, I would think a Trump victory was still likely; without any smoking guns from some particularly shady hypothetical dealings by the Trump campaign, I feel the US is too polarized at this point for almost anything to sway too many people one way or the other, but serious enough matters could still affect turnout.

Now, the premise itself of more lax prior restraint restrictions is problematic. Something like a News Management Act is inherently against the spirit of the First Amendment. It's not an accident that that's the first amendment in the Bill of Rights. Don't underestimate the importance of protecting speech in America, throughout its history. (I can easily imagine a heated debate among your bill's authors over whether the very term "news management" itself would garner too much public opposition.)

I would suggest that in order to make this scenario more believable, you devise some new occurrence (or alter the details of New York Times v. US) to create a situation not directly related to national security, yet with a strong possibility of an indirect implication that is difficult to prove with certainty, yet significant enough to lead the court to decide to play it safe. This might be a good explanation for an alternative ruling to the 1971 case or something like it.

All in all, this is a very thoughtful scenario, and certainly a plausible one for a work of fiction. I encourage you to continue with it. Well done!

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