New York Times Company vs. US

Does prior restraint apply in this case?

The Case

In 1971, the New York Times Company newspaper obtained documents known as the Pentagon Papers. These documents detailed the activities of the US Government and military in Vietnam -- and more specifically, how the US had been deceiving the American population. When it had attempted to publish them, the Nixon Administration attempted to prevent this by having the US district court in New York issue a temporary injunction that directed the New York Times to not publish the documents.

The US held that the publication of these papers would endanger national security and that exercising prior restraint was necessary in order to protect it.

The New York Times argued that this was a violation of the First Amendment, and that the government had failed to produce reasonable evidence as to how national security would be threatened because of the publication of the documents.

The Decision

In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court upheld the decisions of the lower courts this case was brought before in deciding the government failed to produce necessary evidence for the justification of prior restraint. This upheld a current-standing precedent of a broad understanding of the press' freedom, even though the justices did not all agree on the extent to which the First Amendment guaranteed it, and in reality the Supreme Court's verdict only denied the government its injunction.

Because of this decision, the Pentagon Papers were released to the public, and many were further disillusioned by the exposing of the government's lies about the Vietnam War.

Terms to Know

Pentagon Papers: Secret summary of American activities in Vietnam.

injunction: a judicial order that restrains a person from beginning or continuing an action threatening or invading the legal right of another.

prior restraint: judicial suppression of material that would be published or broadcast, on the grounds that it is libelous or harmful.

First Amendment: 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; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

New York Times v United States