Freedom of the Press: The New York Times v. United States

Freedom of the Press has been guaranteed by the Constitution for over 200 years. And for nearly as long there has been a debate about where that freedom stops.

Freedom of the Press. It’s right there in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press….” The Framers put it there because free speech and an independent press had been essential during the Revolutionary War. But the very men who wrote these freedoms into the Constitution, they were also the first ones to try and undo them. And they weren’t the last.

Freedom of the Press: The New York Times v. United States tells the story of Americans throughout our history who fought to have their voices heard even when those in power tried to stop them. Congressman Mathew Lyons served months in jail for criticizing President John Adams, Eugene Debs was sentenced to 10 years in prison for a speech criticizing World War I, and in 1971 President Richard Nixon tried to stop the New York Times from publishing a classified report on the Vietnam War that came to be known as the Pentagon Papers.

Daniel Ellsberg worked in the Department of Defense and had served in the VietnamWar. He was a supporter of the war – that is, until he was involved in creating a 7,000-page report about it for the Pentagon. The more he learned, the more Ellsberg believed that the government had lied about why it went to war in Vietnam, and that its policies were covering up the fact that the US was losing the war.

Ellsberg copied the report and brought it to members of Congress. When they refused to make it public, he brought it to the New York Times, who published an entire series of articles about the Pentagon Papers. This didn’t sit too well with President Nixon. For the first time in history the White House sought to have a federal court to stop a newspaper from publishing an article. The resulting legal battle would go all the way to the Supreme Court – and its outcome would have a lasting impact on the First Amendment rights of all of us.