ACLU History: The Pentagon Papers: Censorship in the Name of National Security

Document Date: September 1, 2010

The issue of a free press arose again in the 1970s, when the Nixon Administration notoriously obtained a court order barring The New York Times and the Washington Post from publishing the Pentagon Papers – hundreds of pages of secret government documents detailing American involvement in the Vietnam War. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court in New York Times v. United States, where the ACLU filed an amicus brief urging against the injunction on free speech grounds. ‘If the Government’s vague and broad test of ‘information detrimental to the national security’ is accepted, there would be virtually no limit to’ censorship of the news now or by future administrations, the ACLU declared. In a ruling that is considered a landmark for freedom of the press, the Court ordered publication of the papers by the Times and others to resume in June 1971. Military analyst Daniel Ellsberg, who had leaked the papers to the press, was prosecuted by the Nixon Administration, but the case was dropped after revelations of government misconduct and illegal wiretapping.

The wiretapping of Ellsberg was just one of many government abuses of power that ultimately led to the downfall of President Richard Nixon. The ACLU was one of the first national organizations to call for Nixon’s impeachment, and the only organization to file an amicus brief in the 1974 Supreme Court case of U.S. v. Nixon over the president’s refusal to turn over key White House tape recordings under a claim of executive privilege. The Court rejected Nixon’s claim in a famous decision holding that presidents are not above the law. When the tapes in question were released, they led directly to Nixon’s resignation.

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» New York Times Company v. United States of America (
» The Battle for the Pentagon Papers (
» ACLU amicus Brief – Nixon v. USA

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