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The Pentagon papers case

Petitioner: New York Times Company

Respondent: United States

Location: Former New York Times Headquarters

Docket No. : 1873

Decided by: Burger Court (1970-1971)

Lower court: United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit

Citation : 403 US 713 (1971)

Page 403 U. S. 714

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Argued: Jun 26, 1971

Decided: Jun 30, 1971

Facts of the case

In what became known as the “Pentagon Papers Case,” the Nixon Administration attempted to prevent the New York Times and Washington Post from publishing materials belonging to a classified Defense Department study regarding the history of United States activities in Vietnam. The President argued that prior restraint was necessary to protect national security. This case was decided together with United States v. Washington Post Co.


In its per curiam opinion the Court held that the government did not overcome the “heavy presumption against” prior restraint of the press in this case. Justices Black and Douglas argued that the vague word “security” should not be used “to abrogate the fundamental law embodied in the First Amendment.” Justice Brennan reasoned

 that since publication would not cause an inevitable, direct, and immediate event imperiling the safety of American forces, prior restraint was unjustified.


New York Times Co. v. United States, (per curiam) 403 U.S. 713, 91 S. Ct. 2140, 29 L. Ed. 2d 822 (1971), often referred to as the Pentagon Papers case, concerned the government’s attempt to prohibit the New York Times and the Washington Post from publishing portions of a secret government study on the Vietnam War. The documents in the study became known as the Pentagon Papers. The United States contended that publication of the Pentagon Papers could prolong the Vietnam War and hinder efforts to return U.S. prisoners held in Vietnam. The Times and the Post claimed that the government was engaging in Censorship. Thus, the case pitted the rights of the newspapers under the First Amendment against the duty of the Executive Branch to protect the nation. The case drew significant national attention as it went through the judicial system and the public wondered what the Pentagon Papers contained.

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