The Burger Court (1969–86)

First Amendment

What did the Court rule in the “Pentagon Papers” case?

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6–3 in New York Times Co. v. United States (1971) that the New York Times and the Washington Post could publish a classified study of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. The newspapers contended that allowing the government to halt the publication on matters of urgent public interest would constitute an invalid prior restraint on free expression. The government contended further publication of the study would compromise U.S. intelligence and endanger U.S troops. The six justices in the majority wrote a three-paragraph joint, unsigned opinion that noted that prior restraints are presumptively invalid and that the government failed to carry its burden that such a prior restraint was justified in this case. Three justices dissented, emphasizing that more time was needed to carefully evaluate the thousands of pages in the Pentagon Papers to determine if the government’s national security interests were compelling. All nine justices wrote separate opinions.


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