AP®︎/College US Government and Politics
Course: AP®︎/College US Government and Politics > Unit 3Lesson 4: The First Amendment: freedom of the press
New York Times Co. v. United States (1971)
New York Times Co. v. United States was a 1971 Supreme Court case concerning freedom of the press.
- In 1971, the administration of President Richard Nixon attempted to suppress the publication of a top-secret history of US military involvement in Vietnam, claiming that its publication endangered national security.
- In the resulting case, the Supreme Court found that this injunction against publication was a violation of the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of the press.
Background of the case
By the late 1960s and early 1970s, the American public had become increasingly hostile to the ongoing US military intervention in Vietnam. In 1970, analyst Daniel Ellsberg leaked a top-secret history of US involvement in Vietnam to the New York Times. This document, known as the Pentagon Papers, showed that President Lyndon Johnson (who had left office in 1969) had lied to Congress and the American people about the extent of US military action in Southeast Asia.
Cover of the published Pentagon Papers book.
In 1971, the New York Times published the first chapter of the Pentagon Papers. The administration of President Richard Nixon then issued federal injunctions against publishing the remainder of the Pentagon Papers to both the New York Times and the Washington Post. The federal government argued that the publication of the top-secret history would imperil national security. The case reached the Supreme Court in June 1971.
The Supreme Court has, at times, ruled that the government can restrict speech that presents a “clear and present danger.” For example, in the 1919 case Schenck v. United States, the Court upheld the conviction of two socialists who distributed pamphlets urging men to resist the military draft during World War I.
One important point about the New York Times case, however, was that the federal government was seeking to prevent publication of a document, as opposed to seeking legal consequences after its publication. This is known as “prior restraint,” or government censorship of materials before publication takes place.
The Constitutional question at stake
Did the Nixon administration violate the First Amendment by attempting to prevent the publication of the Pentagon Papers?
Yes, the Nixon administration did violate the First Amendment. In a 6-3 decision, the Court ruled that the US government had not met “the heavy burden of showing justification for the enforcement” of prior restraint. The Court ordered the immediate end of the injunctions against publication.
The Court offered two explanations for its ruling. First, that “Both the history and language of the First Amendment support the view that the press must be left free to publish news, whatever the source, without censorship, injunctions, or prior restraints.” Second, that the publication of a history of US action in Vietnam would not endanger current military personnel by revealing their location or movements.
Why does New York Times Co. v. United States matter?
In this ruling, the Court established a “heavy presumption against prior restraint,” even in cases involving national security. This means that the Court is very likely to find cases of government censorship unconstitutional.
New York Times Co. v. United States was a major victory for freedom of the press.
What do you think?
Why do you think the Court ruled differently in New York Times Co. v. United States (1971) than it did in Schenck v. United States (1919)? Consider differences in the ideological composition of the Court and public opinion towards the wars.
Under what circumstances, if any, should the government have the ability to restrict the freedom of the press?
Want to join the conversation?
- Who was the plaintiff and who was the defendant in this case?(4 votes)
- In the US, case names list the plaintiff before the defendant, like this:
Plaintiff v. Defendant
So, in the 1971 case New York Times Co. v. United States -
New York Times Co. = plaintiff
United States = defendant
In other words, the newspaper publisher sued the government.
Hope this helps!(18 votes)
- Under what circumstances, if any, should the government have the ability to restrict the freedom of the press?(4 votes)
- Many believe the government can restrict the press only in extreme circumstances where the publication of an article will pose a threat to others. For example, if an article published by CNN or Fox News reveals the current locations of US spies or troops, this would put their lives at risk, thus why the government would restrict such publication.(12 votes)
- Are there any other similar court cases?(5 votes)
- Why did Daniel Ellsberg even leak the information about the Pentagon Papers?(0 votes)
- He was one of the employees at the Pentagon tasked with recording the Vietnam War. When he learned that Executives had been lying to the American public and withholding information about the state of the war, he started to photocopy and release it.(13 votes)
- What was the dissent of this?(2 votes)
- Can someone please give me a summary of what the case was about?(0 votes)
- This case discusses prior restraint: the idea that the government has a very high burden of proof (has to very clearly show) that the public would be endangered by something a newspaper or publisher wants to publish in order to stop it from being publishes. In effect, the government cannot stop something from being published, only attempt to enact legal action after it is published (in the case of classified information, for example)(6 votes)
- What was the lower court verdict?(2 votes)
- The court case had gotten all the way up to a 2nd Federal Court of Appeals, where the appellate court ruled in Nixon's favor. New York Times then turned to the Supreme Court where it ruled in their favor.
Although there are many useful resources when studying court cases, one of my favorites is JUSTIA US LAW.
Hope this helps.(1 vote)