New York Times v. United States
How does the First Amendment right to a free press work when the country is at war? The U.S. Supreme Court case New York Times v. United States set the standard in 1971 by allowing the New York Times and the Washington Post to publish The Pentagon Papers despite the information being classified.
The Court’s 6-3 decision was in favor of the newspapers, deciding that the Espionage Act did not take precedence over the First Amendment.
After six years of war with Vietnam, the New York Times began publishing The Pentagon Papers, which were leaked government documents that outlined the government’s strategy in Vietnam. The Nixon administration sought an injunction against the newspaper to prevent further publication of these documents, citing executive privilege and national security. The Court has always put the Constitution first, which reads “no law may be made abridging the freedom of the press” in its First Amendment.
The plaintiff (the U.S. government) sought the injunction based on the Espionage Act that says anyone who has unlawful possession of a sensitive document that might compromise the government and who “communicates” that information is in violation of federal law.
A lower court upheld the administration’s request for “prior restraint” which is censorship prior to publication in the form of an injunction against future publication of the leaked documents. The Supreme Court did not agree. The Court’s history pointed to preserving the freedom of the press in all but the most extreme cases such as those that would publish the departure dates of troops that would make them targets for the enemy.
Previous cases in which government entities sought to prevent the press from publishing information included the 1931 Near v. Minnesota which established the modern precedent for prior restraint.
Judge Hugo Black wrote a scathing opinion, saying that “every moment” that the lower court’s injunction stood was a “flagrant, indefensible, and continuing violation of the First Amendment.” The Supreme Court is the authority on all questions of constitutionality.