No recent Supreme Court case better illustrates the potential conflict between the imperatives of press freedom and national security than that of the Pentagon Papers.
In 1971, the Pentagon Papers -- the Defense Department's top-secret study of the growth of United States military involvement in Vietnam -- were leaked by a government official to The New York Times. On June 13 of that year, the newspaper began publishing articles based on the documents. When the government learned of this, the Department of Justice asked for a temporary restraining order, which was granted.
In its petition to the court, the executive branch of the government asserted that it should be the sole judge of national security needs and should be granted a court order to enforce that viewpoint. The newspaper countered that this would violate First Amendment press freedoms provided for under the U.S. Constitution. It also argued that the real government motive was political censorship rather than protection of national security.
On June 30, the Supreme Court -- in New York Times v. the United States -- ruled in favor of the newspaper, and the documents were subsequently published. The Constitution, the justices asserted, has a "heavy presumption," in favor of press freedom. The Court left open the possibility that dire consequences could result from publication of classified documents by newspapers, but said that the government had failed to prove that result in this instance.
The publication of the Pentagon Papers helped fuel the debate over the wisdom of U.S. involvement in Vietnam; however, most observers agree that the publication of the papers did not do injury to the national security of the United States.
The Pentagon Papers case proves the value of the First Amendment, says Jim Goodale, general counsel to The New York Times during the time of this landmark decision. "It serves as a shield against an overzealous government."
Goodale points out that the government has sought to stop publication of classified documents in other cases. Although it has won temporary restraining orders in some instances, he says he knows of no case where a court order to prevent publication has been "permanently granted."
eJournal USA, Vol. 2, No. 1, February 1997