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New York Times Co. v. United States [The Pentagon Papers Case]

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Brief Fact Summary.

The U.S. government sought to enjoin newspaper publications from publishing a study about Vietnam policy.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

Any system of prior restraints of expression bears a heavy presumption against its constitutional validity. The government thus carries a heavy burden of showing justification for the enforcement of such a restraint.

Points of Law - Legal Principles in this Case for Law Students.

It should be noted at the outset that the First Amendment provides that Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.

View Full Point of Law
Facts.

The U.S. government sought to enjoin the New York Times and the Washington Post from publishing the contents of a classified study called “History of U.S. Decision-Making Process on Viet Nam Policy.”

Issue.

Did the U.S. government’s efforts to prevent the publication of “History of U.S. Decision-Making Process on Viet Nam Policy” violate the First Amendment?

Held.

Yes, the U.S. government’s efforts to prevent the study’s publication violated the First Amendment.

Dissent.

Justice Harlan

The questions that face us are difficult questions of fact, law, and judgment. The time which has been available to us, to the lower courts, and to the parties, has been wholly inadequate for giving these cases the kind of consideration they deserve. Moreover, these questions are not appropriate for judicial resolution.

Justice Blackmun

The First Amendment is only one part of an entire Constitution. Article II of the Constitution vests in the executive branch primary power over foreign affairs, which includes the responsibility for the nation’s safety. Each constitutional provision is important and the First Amendment may not be favored at the cost of downgrading other provisions.

Concurrence.

Justice Black

Every moment that the injunctions against these newspapers continues amounts to a flagrant violation of the First Amendment. The government cannot halt the publication of current news of vital importance to the people of this country simply by claiming that publication would destroy “security,” which is a broad, vague generality.

Justice Douglas

Although the disclosure of the study may have a serious impact, the First Amendment leaves no room for governmental restraint on the press. Secrecy in government is fundamentally anti-democratic.

Justice Brennan

Our cases have thus far indicated that prior restraints may be available only when the nation is at war. Because it is not, prior restraint is not justified.

Justice Stewart

Since publication would not cause an inevitable, direct, and immediate event imperiling the safety of American forces, prior restraint is unjustified.

Justice White

Congress has addressed the problems of protecting the national security and national defense from unauthorized disclosure of potentially damaging information. Notably, it has not authorized the injunctive remedy against threatened publication. It has so far only relied on criminal sanctions and their deterrent effect on the press.

Discussion.

The Court agreed with the lower federal courts that the government did not overcome the heavy presumption against prior restraint of the press.


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