The Pentagon Papers (the name the media gave to a report titled Report of the Office of the Secretary of Defense Vietnam Task Force) was a classified report on the United States’ military and political involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967. The report revealed that the USA had secretly enlarged the scope of its actions in the Vietnam War, and that the government (the Johnson and Kennedy administrations) had systematically lied to the public and to the USA Congress. None of the military action, including bombings of Cambodia and Laos, had been reported in the mainstream media. In 1971, a previous insider, who had become opposed to the Vietnam War, leaked large parts of the report to the media.
Amongst other newspapers, the New York Times and the Washington Post began publishing excerpts of and articles based on the report; and street protests, political controversy, and lawsuits followed.
Nixon was initially pleased with the embarrassing revelations about his predecessors, but Henry Kissinger convinced him to take action, as the publications set a negative precedent regarding future government secrets.
The government succeeded in obtaining an injunction (interdict) against the New York Times (in New York). But the government failed in obtaining an injunction against the Washington Post (in Washington). Due to the conflicting judgments, the Supreme Court granted leave to appeal in both cases.
The First Amendment of the US Constitution includes:
Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press …
The Supreme Court delivered judgment in New York Times Co. v. United States (the two cases were heard together) on 30 June 1971. The Justices decided by a majority of 6 to 3 that the government failed to meet the heavy burden of proof required for a prior restraint injunction to prohibit publication of excerpts of and articles based on the report. But the nine Justices each wrote an opinion, and they disagreed on several substantive matters. Perhaps the most famous passage is from the opinion of Justice Black (one of the majority):
“In the First Amendment the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfil its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors. The Government’s power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the Government. The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the people. Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government. And paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people and sending them off to distant lands to die of foreign fevers and foreign shot and shell. In my view, far from deserving condemnation for their courageous reporting, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other newspapers should be commended for serving the purpose that the Founding Fathers saw so clearly. In revealing the workings of government that led to the Vietnam war, the newspapers nobly did precisely that which the Founders hoped and trusted they would do.”