New York Times v. United States | 1971
Attorney for the New York Times in the Pentagon Papers case
Former Solicitor General Constitutional Law Scholar
Choose a video from the playlist below
  • New York Times v. United States Full Program
  • The Pentagon Papers - 25 Years After
  • Case Preview
  • Fighting for the Press
  • The Pentagon Papers Case - 35 Years Later
  • Publication of Classified Information
  • Secrecy
  • National Security and the Press
  • Debate on Confidentiality of Sources
  • Daniel Ellsberg Oral History Interview
  • Daniel Ellsberg Oral History Interview
  • Katharine Graham
  • Hedrick Smith Interview
  • Nixon Tapes: Reaction to the Pentagon Papers
  • Nixon Tapes: Nixon on Prosecuting Ellsberg
  • Nixon Tapes: Reaction to Supreme Court Decision
Subject: Freedom of the Press and Government Power
Case Decided:
June 30, 1971

New York Times v. United States, better known as the “Pentagon Papers” case, was a decision expanding freedom of the press and limits on the government's power to interrupt that freedom. President Richard Nixon used his executive authority to prevent the New York Times from publishing top secret documents pertaining to U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. In a 6-3 decision, the Court ruled that the President’s attempt to prevent the publication was a violation of First Amendment protections for press freedom.

Daniel Ellsberg was a part of a top secret study conducted by the Department of Defense about the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. Ellsberg leaked the study to a New York Times reporter, Neil Sheehan, who published part of the leaked information on the New York Times Sunday edition June 13, 1971. The headline read “Vietnam Archive: Pentagon Study Traces 3 Decades of Growing U.S. Involvement.”

Because of the sensitive information contained in the study, the government feared it would compromise relationships with other nations and claimed it posed a threat to national security. The government claimed the publication violated the Espionage Act and President Nixon ordered further publications halted. In a matter of days, the case had reached the Supreme Court.

The Court ruled that the intent of the publication was not to put the U.S. in danger but to educate the American people about the Vietnam War. By preventing the New York Times from publishing the material, the reporters' 1st Amendment rights were being violated. Many historians now credit the publishing of the “Pentagon Papers” with helping to end the Vietnam War.

Key Players
New York Times
A Sunday edition of the New York Times in 1971 headlined, “Vietnam Archive: Pentagon Study Traces 3 Decades of Growing U.S. Involvement.” Better known as the “Pentagon Papers,” the government tried to obstruct any publication about this top secret confidential study resulting in a newfound hostile relationship between the U.S. government and the press. A federal judge in New York issued a restraining order against the Times, making it the first time in history a publication was halted due to national security concerns. The case quickly made its way to the Supreme Court.
Image courtesy of The New York Times
Daniel Ellsberg
Daniel Ellsberg is an American activist, former United States military analyst, and former strategic analyst for the RAND Corporation. Ellsberg was involved in a highly classified study known as the “Pentagon Papers,” a study of U.S. political and military involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967. He became opposed to the war and felt the material in the study needed to be made available to the American people. He released the “Pentagon Papers” to The New York Times and other newspapers. He was charged under the Espionage Act of 1917 along with other charges of theft and conspiracy. Charges were later dismissed after discovering the government had obtained evidence against him illegally.
Image courtesy of Getty Images
Cornelius "Neil" Mahoney Sheehan
Cornelius "Neil" Mahoney Sheehan is an American journalist and the reporter that received the “Pentagon Papers” from Daniel Ellsberg. After the government halted any further publication of the “Pentagon Papers” the issue would land itself in the Supreme Court. His publication of the Pentagon Papers investigation was a result of New York Times v. United States, a turning point for First Amendment decisions.
Image courtesy of Getty Images
Richard Milhous Nixon
Richard Milhous Nixon (January 9, 1913 - April 22, 1994) was the 37th President of the United States. He was in office during the “Pentagon Papers” scandal. President Nixon became concerned that the publication of the Pentagon Papers would compromise U.S. intelligence and diplomatic relationships. In fear of compromising relationships with other nations, President Nixon ordered the Justice Department to prevent further publication of the New York Times.
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