New York Times Company v. United States: Case Summary, Impact, and Current Considerations
The New York Times Company v. United States or the “Pentagon Papers” case resulted in a landmark ruling that outlined the application and power of the First Amendment. The case reviewed by the Supreme Court in 1971 had rather scandalous prehistory. In 1967, Robert McNamara, the Secretary of Defense, commissioned a comprehensive study on U.S. involvement in Vietnam War. The work was completed in 1968; the classified report consisted of 7,000 pages and was printed only in fifteen copies (Robertson, n.d.). In 1971, Daniel Ellsberg, an employee of the RAND Corporation who had worked on McNamara’s order, copied the documents and secretly passed them to the New York Times reporters. According to Frary and Ellsberg (2021), Ellsberg was so shocked by the scope of uncovered U.S. government wrongdoings that he firmly decided to disseminate the knowledge. The New York Times began publishing the damning “Pentagon Papers”, and the American nation became aware of the U.S. government’s failings in involvement in Vietnam.
Ellsberg’s whistleblowing was not accepted warmly by the U.S. government. In particular, the government attempted to prevent similar situations by exercising a right of prior restraint or preprint censorship. The Nixon administration argued that newspapers endangered national security and obtained a restraining order that prohibited further publications of the “Pentagon Papers” (Robertson, n.d.). However, the Supreme Court reversed the restraining order following an appeal made by the New York Times, claiming that the U.S. government had not met the burden of justifying the imposition of restraint (FindLaw, n.d.). In particular, Justices Black and Douglas called the government’s actions a “flagrant, indefensible, and continuing violation of the First Amendment” (FindLaw, n.d.). In the end, newspapers were allowed to continue publishing classified materials, which was a notable victory for the freedom of the press and speech in the United States.
Impact on the Freedom of Press and Speech
While one might be tempted to call the “Pentagon Papers” case an ultimate victory of journalism in the face of oppression, the real impact of the ruling is significantly more ambiguous. On the one hand, the case encouraged the journalists to adopt an independent mindset. For instance, the 1971 survey of 1,313 American journalists found that most of them were enthusiastic about being a watchdog over government, a person who covers complex and controversial problems (Weaver et al., 2019). In this example, one can see that the Court’s ruling contributed to the development of investigative journalism in the United States, as the journalists saw that the First Amendment provides a certain protection against persecution. On the other hand, the Court’s decision was not absolute in terms of the application of the legal principles. According to Milosavljević and Poler (2019), the ruling primarily depended on the degree of harm that the publication of the documents could reasonably inflict. Therefore, a journalist should be aware that the case outcome might differ if the court considers their publishing more harmful.
Furthermore, the justices’ decision in the “Pentagon Papers” case was not unanimous. The split 6-3 ruling was based on explanatory and significantly divided opinions of individual justices (Milosavljević & Poler, 2019). Moreover, only Justices Black and Douglas firmly stated that the government could not justify prior restraint. The other four Justices in the majority considered prior restraint permissible if a publication would cause significant and irreparable damage (Milosavljević & Poler, 2019). In this regard, the Court’s ruling was not a decisive victory for the press since even the judges who ruled in favor of the appeal found prior restraint applicable under specific circumstances. Therefore, the Court’s decision meant that covering the government’s wrongdoings would still be associated with significant legal risks for future journalists.
Current Considerations for Communication Professionals
The ruling in the “Pentagon Papers” case has created two primary considerations for communication professionals. Most importantly, the Supreme Court’s decision offered protection against prior restraint in cases when the publication does not inflict immediate, direct, and irreparable damage (Milosavljević & Poler, 2019). However, a communication professional must realize that prior restraint is not prohibited entirely and might be permitted depending on the court’s judgment in regard to a particular publication. As such, one should not believe that the ruling in the “Pentagon Papers” case fully protects against government censorship. The New York Times might have won the appeal, but their case cannot be regarded as a full-fledged precedent of prior restraint prohibition in the United States.
Secondly, a communication professional should remember that the Court’s decision in the “Pentagon Papers” case affects only the subject of prior restraint. In particular, several justices noted that the ruling was inapplicable for subsequent legal actions (Milosavljević & Poler, 2019). In other words, one may avoid prior restraint and disseminate whistleblowing or controversial content to the public only to face lawsuits after the publication. In this regard, the ruling only covers the right to publish content in media sources. Similar to the First Amendment, the decision in the ”Pentagon Papers” case covers only the freedom of speech. A communication professional may freely deliver information to the public; however, they may not be exonerated of legal responsibility if the public or government agencies find the content offensive, unethical, or otherwise damaging.
FindLaw. (n.d.). New York Times Co. v. United States. Web.
Frary, M., & Ellsberg, D. (2021). The original whistleblower. Index on Censorship, 50(2), 62-65. Web.
Milosavljević, M., & Poler, M. (2019). Legal analysis in media policy research. In H. van den Bulck et al. (Eds.), The Palgrave handbook of methods for media policy research (pp. 519-539). Palgrave Macmillan.
Robertson, S. (n.d.). New York Times Co. v. United States (1971). The First Amendment to Encyclopedia. Web.
Weaver, D. H., Willnat, L., & Wilhoit, G. C. (2019). The American journalist in the digital age: Another look at US news people. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 96(1), 101-130. Web.