WASHINGTON — A federal judge on Thursday dismissed a novel lawsuit challenging a censorship system the government uses to ensure that millions of former military and intelligence officials disclose no classified secrets if they write articles and books after leaving public service.
It has become a routine part of gaining a security clearance to consent to prepublication reviews of writings that relate to government work. Over the past 40 years, that system has expanded to cover many more officials and agencies than it did in 1980, when the Supreme Court upheld it in a cursory and unsigned decision.
But in a 57-page opinion, Judge George J. Hazel of the Federal District Court of the District of Maryland ruled that the 1980 precedent still controlled the legal dispute — at least at his level. He wrote that only the Supreme Court can decide if one of its precedents is obsolete in light of changed circumstances.
A Justice Department spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment. But Jameel Jaffer, the executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, which brought the case on behalf of five former intelligence officials, said they would appeal.
“This is a disappointing decision,” Mr. Jaffer said. “The court has approved sweeping restrictions on the speech of former civil servants whose insights into the work of government are needed more than ever. These restrictions silence voices that the public needs to hear, and they are inconsistent with the First Amendment.”
The prepublication review system traces back to limits imposed on several C.I.A. officials in the 1950s. It expanded to cover additional people and agencies starting in the 1970s and ballooned further under the Reagan administration.
While many lawsuits have challenged the government’s handling of particular manuscripts, the Knight Institute’s case appears to be the first to object to the underlying system itself, unconnected to any particular disputed piece of writing.
The plaintiffs argued that the system was “dysfunctional” and unjustifiably restricted their free speech and due process rights. They said the system was plagued by a patchwork of ambiguous policies and vague standards that put too much power in the hands of reviewing officials, who can discriminate against lower-ranking people who criticize government actions while speedily clearing favorable memoirs by retired senior officials.
The plaintiffs had asked Judge Hazel to rule that their former agencies could not enforce any obligation to submit their future writings to review boards. They took no position on whether the solution was to fix the system or make it voluntary — which would leave former intelligence and military officials free to publish without prior review if they assume the risk of being prosecuted if they divulge any dangerous secrets.
But while observing that the plaintiffs’ complaints about the inadequacies and breadth of the prepublication review system “do not appear inaccurate or implausible,” Judge Hazel — a 2014 appointee of President Barack Obama — said the 1980 precedent, Snepp v. United States, controlled the outcome of the case.
“Plaintiffs’ position is simply untenable in light of Snepp,” he wrote.
In the Snepp case, the Supreme Court permitted the C.I.A. to seize the proceeds from a former officer who published a book without submitting it for review. But the lawsuit had challenged its continuing relevance as a binding precedent.
The Supreme Court did not hear arguments or take briefs before issuing its unsigned ruling in Snepp, which dismissed the First Amendment issues in a footnote. The ruling, moreover, was handed down before the prepublication review system underwent enormous growth.
Judge Hazel, however, said that as a Federal District Court judge, he remained bound by it.
“While the Supreme Court may question and re-examine its precedents in light of societal change and the passage of time, this court has no such power,” he wrote.