Global Freedom of Expression

New York Times Co. v. United States

Closed Expands Expression

Key Details

  • Mode of Expression
    Press / Newspapers
  • Date of Decision
    June 30, 1971
  • Outcome
    Dismissed, Injunction or Order Denied/Vacated
  • Case Number
    403 U.S. 713
  • Region & Country
    United States, North America
  • Judicial Body
    Supreme (court of final appeal)
  • Type of Law
    Constitutional Law
  • Themes
    Content Regulation / Censorship, National Security, Press Freedom

Content Attribution Policy

Global Freedom of Expression is an academic initiative and therefore, we encourage you to share and republish excerpts of our content so long as they are not used for commercial purposes and you respect the following policy:

  • Attribute Columbia Global Freedom of Expression as the source.
  • Link to the original URL of the specific case analysis, publication, update, blog or landing page of the down loadable content you are referencing.

Attribution, copyright, and license information for media used by Global Freedom of Expression is available on our Credits page.

Case Analysis

Case Summary and Outcome

In a landmark decision, the U.S. Supreme Court held that in certain cases the government could not prevent newspapers from publishing certain classified content. The U.S. government sought to prevent the New York Times and the Washington Post from publishing articles based on the Pentagon Papers, a leaked classified report on the U.S. role in Indochina, under Section 793 of the Espionage Act. The Court established that the government must prove that publication would result in “grave and irreparable” danger to justify prior restraint and had failed to do so in this case; it did not, however, rule that the Section or Act cited by the government was unconstitutional.


In 1971, the New York Times and the Washington Post attempted to publish the contents of a classified study, entitled “History of U.S. Decision-Making Process on Viet Nam Policy.” In order to prevent the newspapers from publishing, the U.S. Attorney General filed a case requesting injunctive relief, arguing that disclosure of the classified materials would endanger national security. Furthermore, the U.S. Attorney General argued that national security triumphed over the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment protections on both freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

Decision Overview

The Supreme Court of the United States held that the U.S. government carries a heavy burden to justify the need to infringe upon the rights protected under the  First Amendment, a burden it failed to meet in this case. Therefore, the New York Times and the Washington Post were protected by the First Amendment and were allowed to publish the contents of the classified study.

Most notably, Justice Black in his concurrence argued that the First Amendment protection of the freedom of the press is an essential function of U.S. democracy. Black stated that the purpose of the freedom of the press is to serve the people and to preserve the right to censure the government. The First Amendment abolished the government’s ability to censor the press in order to ensure that the people have access to information that is free from government bias and to allow people to hold open public debates. The rights protected in First Amendment triumph over the government’s interest in security or civil obedience.

In his concurrence, Justice Douglas noted that secrecy in government is undemocratic, as is the government’s attempt to kept relevant information out of the public debate surrounding the Vietnam War.  Justice Brennan differed in his concurrence, stating while the First Amendment acts as an absolute bar in the present case, this may not be the case for a temporary prevention of publishing information in the interest of national security, or if one of the exceptions established in Near v. Minnesota applies.[1]  Justice Stewart asserted in his concurrence that if the disclosure would cause a direct, immediate, and irreparable damage to the U.S. or to U.S. citizens, then the outcome may be different in the future. Justice White stated in his concurrence that the fact that information is sensitive to national security does not prevent the press from exercising its First Amendment rights.

Finally, Chief Justice Burger in his dissent argued that the First Amendment is not absolute in all cases:  there are exceptions to the First Amendment, and these exceptions should be debated in the court system.

[1] In Near v. Minnesota, the Court outlined three exceptions to the First Amendment protection of freedom of the press: if the publication is obscene, would jeopardize national security in wartime, or threatens to incite violence and/or the overthrow the government. Here, the Court found that none of these exceptions applied.

Decision Direction

Quick Info

Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.

Expands Expression

The Supreme Court of the United States expanded freedom of expression in this case by placing a heavy burden on the U.S. government to justify its desired censorship of the press.

Global Perspective

Quick Info

Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.

Table of Authorities

National standards, law or jurisprudence

Case Significance

Official Case Documents

Official Case Documents:

Reports, Analysis, and News Articles:

Have comments?

Let us know if you notice errors or if the case analysis needs revision.

Send Feedback