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New York Times Company v. U.S.: 1971

The Government Moves To Stop The Leak, Supreme Court Throws Out Government's Case, Government Thwarts Own Prosecution Of Ellsberg

Appellant: The United States
Defendant: The New York Times Company
Appellant's Claim: That the government's efforts to prevent the New York Times from publishing certain Vietnam War documents known as the "Pentagon Papers" were justified because of the interests of national security
Chief Defense Lawyers: Alexander M. Bickel and William E. Hegarty
Chief Lawyers for Appellant: Daniel M. Friedman, Erwin N. Griswold, and Robert C. Mardian
Justices: Hugo L. Black, Harry A. Blackmun, William J. Brennan Jr., Warren E. Burger, William 0. Douglas, John M. Harlan, Thurgood Marshall, Potter Stewart, and Byron R. White
Place: Washington, D.C.
Date of Decision: June 30, 1971
Decision: The government cannot restrain the New York Times from publishing the Pentagon Papers.

SIGNIFICANCE: In New York Times Company v. U.S., the Supreme Court held that the government must meet a heavy burden of justification before it can restrain the press from exercising its First Amendment right to publish.

In the Spring of 1971, the Vietnam War was still raging despite the fact that popular opinion was against President Richard Nixon's administration's efforts to keep the United States in the conflict. Opposition to the war spread throughout the armed forces themselves and into what has been called the military-industrial complex. This opposition sentiment affected one man in particular, a former employee of the U.S. Department of Defense who had also worked for the Rand Corporation, an important military contractor. His name was Daniel Ellsberg.

Ellsberg and a friend, Anthony Russo, Jr., stole a copy of a massive, 47-volume study prepared by the Department of Defense titled "History of U.S. Decision-Making Process on Vietnam Policy." The study had more than 3,000 pages, supplemented with 4,000 more pages of source documents. Ellsberg and Russo also stole a one-volume study titled "Command and Control Study of the Gulf of Tonkin Incident," prepared in 1965. These studies were essentially a massive history of American involvement in Vietnam since World War II, and were classified "TOP SECRET-SENSITIVE" and "TOP SECRET" respectively.

Ellsberg and Russo passed these studies on to two newspapers, the New York Times in New York City and the Washington Post in Washington, D.C. Neither paper was involved in the theft of government documents. In its Sunday, June 13, 1971, edition, the Times began a series of articles containing excerpts from the studies, which were dubbed the "Pentagon Papers." The Times published more articles on June 14 and 15.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1963 to 1972