Obama’s Battles With The Press Do Not Rival Nixon: New York Times v. United States
President Barack Obama has received criticism in the wake of reports that the Justice Department seized phone records for telephone lines used by reporters and editors at The Associated Press. The government was trying to determine the source of leaked information in an AP article about a CIA operation that prevented an al-Qaida bomb plot. This is not the first time that a government investigation of media leaks has triggered the ire of civil liberties groups. In fact, it pales in comparison to the controversies during the Nixon Administration, which went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in New York Times v. United States, 403 U.S. 713 (1971), or better-known as the “Pentagon Papers” case.
The Facts of the Case
President Richard Nixon sought to use his executive authority to prevent the New York Times and the Washington Post from publishing the contents of a classified study entitled “History of U.S. Decision-Making Process on Viet Nam Policy.” The administration argued that prior restraint was needed to protect national security, citing several provisions of the Espionage Act.
The question before the Court was whether the executive branch’s need to maintain the secrecy of information can trump the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of the press.
The Supreme Court’s Decision
In a 6-3 decision, the majority of the Supreme Court sided with the newspapers, upholding their right to publish the report. As noted by justices in a brief per curium opinion, “Any system of prior restraints of expression comes to this Court bearing a heavy presumption against its constitutional validity.” The Court agreed with the lower court that the government had not met that burden.
In a series of concurring and dissenting opinions, the justices generally agreed that governmental restraint on the press is very rarely justified. As Justice Potter Stewart explained, “In absence of governmental checks and balances, the only effective restraint upon executive policy and power in [these two areas] may lie in an enlightened citizenry – in an informed and critical public opinion which alone can here protect the values of democratic government.”
Even the three dissenting justices, lead by Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, did not so much argue with the ultimate result of the case, but the swiftness with which the Court arrived at its conclusion. While he shared the majority’s resistance to prior restraints against publication, Burger cautioned that the superiority of the First Amendment should not be absolute, particularly when “the imperative of a free and unfettered press comes into collision with another imperative, the effective functioning of a complex modern government, and, specifically, the effective exercise of certain constitutional powers of the Executive.”
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- Establishment ClauseFree Exercise Clause
- Freedom of Speech
- Freedoms of Press
- Freedom of Assembly, and Petitition
- The Right to Bear Arms
- Unreasonable Searches and Seizures
- Due Process
- Eminent Domain
- Rights of Criminal Defendants
Preamble to the Bill of Rights
Congress of the United States begun and held at the City of New-York, on Wednesday the fourth of March, one thousand seven hundred and eighty nine.
THE Conventions of a number of the States, having at the time of their adopting the Constitution, expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added: And as extending the ground of public confidence in the Government, will best ensure the beneficent ends of its institution.