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The Most Dangerous Man in America in Context

New York Times Co. v United States

Two days after The New York Times first published excerpts of the Pentagon Papers, the Nixon government asked for and received a Supreme Court injunction against the newspaper, arguing that publication of the documents posed "a grave and immediate danger to the security of the United States."



In 1971, Daniel Ellsberg leaked a copy of the 7,000-page Pentagon Papers to New York Times reporter Neil Sheehan. Sheehan and his fellow New York Times reporter Hedrick Smith spent weeks studying the documents and writing articles about them. On June 13, 1971, The New York Times began to publish excerpts of the documents. President Nixon argued that the entire report was top secret, and on June 15, the federal government asked the court for an injunction, claiming for the first time in American history the right to prevent communications from reaching the public. The government argued that to continue publishing the Pentagon Papers would pose "a grave and immediate danger to the security of the United States." The government won a temporary injunction from the courts to stop The New York Times from publishing excerpts from the Pentagon Papers.

More than a dozen other newspapers, including The Washington Post, also received copies of the Pentagon Papers and published excerpts. The Washington Post and two other papers were also enjoined, but, as one lawyer said, trying to stop publication was like "herding bees," and during the last two weeks of June, newspaper after newspaper published articles about and excerpts from the top-secret report. On June 30, the Supreme Court reversed the injunctions against The New York Times and The Washington Post, ruling six to three that publication of the documents was not a threat to national security, but rather was in the public interest and protected by the First Amendment. Justice Hugo Black wrote, "The press was to serve the governed, not the governors."

The case marked the first time in American history that the U.S. government had tried to restrain the press in the name of national security; the Supreme Court's decision re-emphasized the right and duty of the press to keep a watchful eye on government.

Sources
» The New York Times. "Times Topics: Pentagon Papers."
» Academy of Achievement. "Neil Sheehan."



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