Case Study of: New York Times Co. v. United States, 403 U.S. 713 (1971)

The parties involved were the Nixon Administration (or the United States), versus the New York Times, and The Washington Post, which were both decided upon at the end of the New York Times Co. v. United States case.

Robert McNamara, the Secretary of Defense during the Nixon Administration, ordered a study to determine the effects the United States policies had on the Vietnam War. The study was written in a book that is referred to as The Pentagon Papers. Daniel Ellsberg, who worked at the Pentagon at the time, discovered The Pentagon Papers and was disturbed by them. The Pentagon Papers relieved that some of the United States’ actions during the Vietnam War were not good. Ellsberg decided to become a whistleblower and shipped a copy of The Pentagon Papers to the New York Times, who week after week would print several articles at a time revealing the content that was laid out in The Pentagon Papers.

The Nixon Administration caught wind of this and tried using his power to issue prior restraint on the New York Times because they felt it was a danger to national security. This was a request for an injunction on the New York Times. The New York Times Co. started the lawsuit against the United States for trying to issue prior restraint on them. The ruling at every level determined that the United States had not met the burden of risking danger to National Security.

The question laid upon the Court is that did the Nixon administration’s efforts to prevent the publication of what it termed “classified information” violate the First Amendment?

The rule of law is that “The First Amendment overrides the federal government’s interest in keeping certain documents, such as the Pentagon Papers, classified.”

“‘[T]he chief purpose of [the First Amendment’s] guaranty [is] to prevent previous restraints upon publication.’ Near v. Minnesota, supra, at 283 U. S. 713. Thus, only governmental allegation and proof that publication must inevitably, directly, and immediately cause the occurrence of an event kindred to imperiling the safety of a transport already at sea can support even the issuance of an interim restraining order,” Justice Brennan wrote in the majority opinion.

The majority opinion is that the New York Times publication does not cause an inevitable, direct, and immediate event to danger to national security. Prior restraint was unjustified. The dissents agreed that it’s the responsibility of the newspaper to investigate the potential impact on national security before publication and that the Court should have shown more deference toward the executive branch and national security interests during wartime.

The majority of decisions were 6 votes for the New York Times by JJ. Black, Douglas, Brennan, Stewart, White, and Marshall; while 3 were against the New York Times by Burger, Harlan, and Blackman.

“The word “security” is a broad, vague generality whose contours should not be invoked to abrogate the fundamental law embodied in the First Amendment,” Chief Justice Hughes wrote in the majority opinion.


A 1st Amendment assessment from my COMS 400 Communication Law and Ethics class at Radford University. This is 1 of 10.

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