In 1971 the Supreme Court ruled in favor of two newspapers The New York Times and The Washington Post, the ruling allowed these paper to print the then classified Pentagon Papers without risk of censure from the Government.
The case pitted the ideas of the free press under the first amendment against the ideas of executive privilege afforded the President in the constitution.
The Pentagon Papers contained 7,000 pages and had been commissioned in 1967 by then Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara. The context of the 40 volumes contained 4,000 actual documents from the period of 1945-1967 discussing in detail the relationship between Vietnam and the United States for that time period. It contained other unpopular details discussing in detail the Kennedy administration and their involvement in removing Ngo Deim Duhn. The most damming information exposed a volitional carpet bombing of Cambodia and Laos marine raids on North Vietnam, none of this reported in the United States publicly. A contributor to the papers gave most of the content to New York Times reporter Neil Sheehan. At the time of the papers release to the press we’d been overtly at war in Vietnam and they damaged the war efforts of the Nixon administration. After six years in Vietnam and thousands of soldiers dead the Pentagon Papers split wide open the credibility gap between the war, government and the public. That is what the Pentagon Papers were and the Nixon administration was desperate to stop The New York Times and the Washington Post from continuing to print those details for the public to read.
The Government attempted to argue that releasing these papers was a risk to national security at a time of war. As the case was pending then Democrat Mike Gravel of Alaska entered into congressional record 4.100 pages of the Pentagon Papers. This was political genius and created a legal safeguard for those papers choosing to run stories related to the Pentagon Papers. It ruined the administration of Nixon and his plans to silence the content of these pages. The constitution under Article 1 Section 6 allows that any speech or debate that occurs on the house or senate floor can not later be challenged in another forum, or in other words they couldn’t challenge the text of those pages as treason in another forum.
The primary thrust of the Nixon team was to suggest that Daniel Ellsberg and Russo who released the papers to news reporter Neil Sheehan was guilty of a form of treason according to Espionage Act of 1917. With the reading of Mike Gravel then a democratic senator of these papers on the Senate floor they fell under Article 1 Section 6 of the constitution and ceased to be classified, the 4,100 pages entered into congressional record.
It was outside counsel James Goodale who argued the first amendment afforded the fourth estate the right to publish documents pertaining to government and is it’s function.
The Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in favor of the papers and against the Government injunctions attempting to stop the paper from publishing the stories associated with the Pentagon papers. It was ruled the government failed to meet the burden of proof regarding their charge. The charge being these papers had been obtained by the news outlets through agents of espionage and therefore posed a great risk to the country and as a result the articled related to their source should be forbidden by government intervention. This wasn’t a sweeping romantic decision for the press and the first amendment it was a failure of the Nixon administration to argue effectively their logic regarding the espionage law of 1917. It had been the intent of the government that these papers would never see daylight but Daniel Ellsberg later went on record saying he’d leaked the papers to get the United States out of a “wrongful war”.
A similar case with a different context was the ACLU against the Bush administration. The ACLU sued the Bush administration over it’s wiretapping program that required no compliance with FISA laws birthed out of the Nixon administration. For months the Bush administration had prevented any cases from being heard because they declared it a national security risk. The New York Times and the United States government had another show down only this time the press went quiet. The ACLU was able to get a favorable ruling on their case by using statements made publicly by President Bush and others regarding the program. If you notice the Department of Justice did everything they could to avoid having the merit of there NSA program argued out in the Supreme court. When the day came they suspended the program. In that case there was only one telecom company that refused to hand over the personal information of their clients and challenged the merit of the request in court. That company was Qwest and it demanded the administration comply with FISA laws before it would comply with their request. It was