10 Situations in History When the US Government Suppressed the Press

10 Situations in History When the US Government Suppressed the Press

Larry Holzwarth - April 19, 2018

Freedom of the press and speech are guaranteed to the American people by the First Amendment to the Constitution which was written, not because the American government thought it needed to create freedom of expression, but because in our early history there had been so many attempts by government to suppress it. Even with the protections of the First Amendment, the United States ranks 41 out of 180 countries in terms of press freedom. Freedom of speech is regarded by Americans as one of the most fundamental of all freedoms, yet it has always been one of the most controversial and has been challenged by the government, businesses, and individuals throughout history.

Communities reserve the right to restrict speech and art based on morality and what is considered by some, though not all, to be obscene. In 1973, the Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment does not protect obscenity, though what is or is not obscene is a subjective judgment in many cases. Nor does the First Amendment fully protect citizens from corporate censorship as a protection for employees. It does protect the citizen from government censorship, but American history includes many instances where the government tried to circumvent or evade the First Amendment to suppress information or silence its citizens.

10 Situations in History When the US Government Suppressed the Press
Although Madison grew to hate the press while President, the First Amendment he authored guaranteed its freedom from government interference. National Gallery of Art.

Here are ten examples of the government attempting to censor or silence the American citizen or the press and its reasons for doing so.

10 Situations in History When the US Government Suppressed the Press
Anthony Comstock, lampooned in Puck Magazine as St Anthony Comstock, the Village Nuisance. Library of Congress

The Comstock Law and the use of the Post Office

The suppression of what certain individuals consider amoral behavior and attitudes has long been a target of government suppression through censorship. During the days of Plymouth Colony, the militia was used when it was learned that an enclave of settlers was enjoying the writing and singing of bawdy songs and verse, not in keeping with the prim image of the Separatists, for example. The First Amendment prevented the use of the military to suppress speech deemed unsuitable, but the federal government had other means at its disposal to suppress what it felt should not be before the eyes of the citizens.

In 1873, the Post Office was a Department of the Executive Branch, and the Postmaster General was a Cabinet level position. During the Civil War pornography among the troops of the contending armies of North and South became widespread. After the war many groups, among them the YMCA, found the pornography intolerable, believing it led to immorality and unwanted pregnancy. One of these moral guardians was Anthony Comstock, who also argued against the use of any form of birth control as immoral and destructive to the public character.

Comstock managed to get himself appointed as special agent to the YMCA’s Committee for the Suppression of Vice. There he drafted a law which made it illegal to send obscene or immoral literature through the United States Post Office. A similar law was already on the books, but it did not include newspapers, because of that pesky annoyance, the First Amendment. Comstock worded his new law so that newspapers could be included if they violated his and other’s version of what is or is not obscene.

This new bill was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Grant in 1873, called the Comstock Law in tribute to its author. Soon many states passed even more restrictive morality laws, collectively called Comstock laws. The Comstock Laws restricted the distribution of pornography through the mail, making it a federal offense to do so. It also restricted the distribution of information regarding abortions and the use of contraceptives, contraceptive devices, or information where such devices could be obtained.

At the time many newspapers carried advertisements for such devices and patent medicines which claimed contraceptive properties, under the law they could no longer be sent through the mail. What was considered obscene by Comstock covered a broad range of topics. Textbooks which discussed the anatomy of the reproductive system, and the reproductive cycle in women, were obscene by his standards.

Many of the governing bodies of the states and local communities used the umbrella provided by the Comstock Law to enforce yet more rigid standards for obscenity and immoral behavior. These were often called Comstock Laws as they were inspired by the federal standard, and many have been overturned by the courts or repealed by the state legislatures. The federal Comstock Law was repealed in 1957 but its definition of obscenity, including anything which “…appealed to the prurient interest of the consumer”, is still cited in obscenity cases today.

10 Situations in History When the US Government Suppressed the Press
The Alien and Sedition Acts were the first attempt by the United States government to abridge the rights of free speech and a free press. Wikimedia

The Alien and Sedition Acts

The early days of the United States under the Constitution were tumultuous and divisive, as political factions began to form parties and the earliest indications of sectionalism became evident. George Washington managed to form the basis of American government largely through the force of his personality but when John Adams succeeded him he lacked the first President’s sterling reputation and national popularity. A potential war with Revolutionary France loomed. There was rebelliousness on the western frontier. Adams reacted by taking steps to control immigration and naturalization, and by attempting to suppress negative coverage in the press. The result was the Alien and Sedition Acts.

Adams and the members of the Federalist Party opposed the revolutionaries in France and supported an alliance with Great Britain. By 1790 France was descending into anarchy and Adam’s feared a similar fate for the United States when the opposing political party, the Democratic-Republicans of Jefferson and Madison, vocally supported the French Revolution. The Sedition Act made it illegal to oppose the position of the federal government in the area of foreign affairs. It protected the President and the Congress from “seditious attacks” but not the Vice-President, who was at the time Thomas Jefferson. There were numerous arrests and prosecutions for seditious behavior under the act before it was overturned.

James Callendar (who would later accuse Jefferson of miscegenation with his slave Sally Hemmings) was arrested under the Sedition Act, fined $200 (about $3,600 today) and sentenced to nine months in jail for comments he made in his book The Prospect Before Us. One of the passages deemed seditious referred to the Adams Administration as a “tempest of malignant passions.” Another writer, Benjamin Franklin Bache, wrote in the Philadelphia Aurora describing President Adams nepotism in the White House. Adam’s had appointed his son in law, his son John Quincy, and Quincy’s father in law to prominent positions in his administration. Franklin Bache was arrested under the Sedition Act but died before he could be tried.

Under President John Adams the Sedition Act was used to describe any commentary regarding the President or his administration which was critical of their actions as seditious and therefore harmful to the United States. Not only written commentary but verbal remarks critical of the President were prosecutable under the Act. Using the threat of fines and imprisonment to silence critics under the guise of national security began with the second President of the United States, and became a major issue in the election of 1800, when Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans won office and control of the Congress.

Jefferson pardoned all those convicted and imprisoned under the Sedition Act in one of the earliest acts of his Presidency. Although the Sedition Act was never argued before the Supreme Court it has been mentioned in the opinions of several justices when discussing other cases over the years, and none of them have discussed it favorably. Interestingly portions of the Alien Act, recodified, remain in effect in the 21st century. It was under the authority of the Alien Enemies Act that FDR issued the executive orders which allowed the seizure and detainment of Japanese, German, Italian, and Hungarian citizens during World War II.

10 Situations in History When the US Government Suppressed the Press
Eugene V. Debs was one of many arrested and imprisoned under the Sedition Act of 1918, which curtailed freedom of speech as a matter of national security. Library of Congress

The Sedition Act of 1918

Technically the Sedition Act of 1918 was an extension of the authority bestowed by the Espionage Act of the preceding year. The Sedition Act made the uttering or writing of anything considered to be disloyal to the United States to be illegal and established the penalties for the crime. One of the earliest arrests under the act was a Russian born American citizen named Mollie Steiner, who wrote, printed, and distributed pamphlets describing American opposition to the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution. She was arrested under terms of the Act, sentenced to fifteen years in prison, and finally deported to Russia.

Eugene Debs was arrested for violation of the Sedition Act in 1918. Debs had used public appearances and written pamphlets and magazine articles to argue against the forced conscription imposed by the federal government during the First World War. Debs was convicted and sentenced to ten years in prison. He served just over two before President Harding commuted his sentence in 1921. By then the Act was no longer operational, its wording was such that it was only in effect if and when the United States was in a state of war. The Armistice which ended the hostilities of World War 1 had been signed in November 1918.

At least one politician of the 1920s found the provisions of the act so useful in silencing political enemies and controlling dissent he proposed that it be placed in effect during peacetime. Mitchell Palmer was the Attorney General of the United States and a candidate for the Democratic nomination for President when he drafted the support of newspaper editors and publishers as well as members of the House and Senate. Palmer was hopeful of using the act to eliminate the many foreign language newspapers in the United States, labor newsletters and pamphlets, and those arguing for racial equality.

Several individuals were arrested under the terms of the Sedition Act of 1918, and some of them convicted after the war was over, despite the Act being no longer in operation. Marie Equi was a Doctor of Medicine and activist for the poor, workers, women, and equal rights. She was a vocal opponent of America’s entry into World War 1 and she was arrested after the United States entered the war. Convicted, she was sentenced to three years of imprisonment, and by the time her appeals were exhausted (and denied) the war was over. President Wilson commuted her sentence to one year and one day, which was served in San Quentin beginning in 1920. She served ten months of the sentence.

The case of seven Russian immigrants distributing literature (by throwing it out of a New York hat manufacturer’s windows to the crowds below) led to the Sedition Act of 1918 being argued before the Supreme Court in 1920. In the case, known as Abrams v. The United States, the Supreme Court upheld the Act as constitutional. Subsequent discussion of the Sedition Act of 1918 in other cases indicates that the decision of 1920 was incorrect and that it would be unlikely to be considered constitutional today. The Sedition Act was fully repealed in 1920, even as those accused of violating it were under trial or serving sentences in prison.

10 Situations in History When the US Government Suppressed the Press
Abraham Lincoln used the power of the Presidency to shut down newspapers which opposed him in the north, including the New York Daily News. The White House

Suppression of the press during the American Civil War

In early August 1861, President Abraham Lincoln issued an Executive Order which made it illegal to establish or maintain a correspondence with “the enemy” or to publish or otherwise disseminate any information which could be construed as giving “intelligence to the enemy, either directly or indirectly.” Under the wording of the order printing stories which covered protests against the war in Northern newspapers could be (and were) considered as giving intelligence to the enemy of Northern disunity. Abraham Lincoln had by then already suspended habeas corpus in Eastern Cities from Washington to New York, and lobbied Congress for the suspension of habeas corpus as a war measure across the Union.

Only a week following Lincoln’s executive orders of early August, four New York newspapers were informed through a legal device known as a presentment that a Grand Jury had informed the US Circuit Court that they were, “encouraging the rebels by expressions of sympathy and agreement.” One of the newspapers was the New York Freeman’s Journal, a Catholic weekly newspaper, which was attacked by Secretary of State William Seward. Seward objected to the newspaper’s frequent editorials upholding the principle of state’s rights. His view was that such arguments undermined the authority of the federal government.

Another of the newspapers was The Journal of Commerce, which had been published in New York since 1827. The Journal’s editorials pages were staunch opponents of slavery, but they were equally critical of the abolitionists and the proponents for was against the South, arguing for a negotiated settlement. Lincoln’s Postmaster General, Montgomery Blair, suspended the paper from being distributed through the mail, effectively killing its evening edition and limiting the morning edition’s circulation to New York City. The paper attempted to fight the decision in the courts but were hampered by the suspension of habeas corpus.

The New York Daily News had supported Stephen A. Douglas in the 1860 election and defended both slavery and the right to secede. It was an openly racist vehicle before the war and condemned the North’s actions against the South as aggression. Montgomery Blair suspended the Daily News‘ right to use the mails for distribution, which had the effect of suspending its publication for several months. Not until May of 1863 would the New York Daily News be able to publish and distribute editions of it newspaper, which had been the highest circulation newspaper in the nation in 1860.

The use of the suspension of habeas corpus followed by unopposed executive orders which allowed the Post Office to effectively close instruments which offered opinions contrary to the administration’s is an example of the shrewd and coldly efficient manner in which Abraham Lincoln used the power of the Presidency. If one were to be asked today to name an American President who took steps to silence the power of the press and suppress free speech it is unlikely that Abraham Lincoln would come to mind. Interestingly, Lincoln sustained ferocious personal attacks in the press throughout his Presidency which he never attempted to contain. He focused his attention on how the public viewed the Confederacy and displayed little concern over how the public viewed him.

10 Situations in History When the US Government Suppressed the Press
Abraham Lincoln meets with General George McClellan in 1862. McClellan and other Union generals complained bitterly about the reporters following their armies and tried to restrict their access to telegraphs and trains. Library of Congress

Military censorship of the press during the Civil War

Although Lincoln and his cabinet had some success in shutting down Northern newspapers which expressed opposing political viewpoints, he was far less successful in controlling the exposure of military information. Early in the war General George B. McClellan complained in a letter to the Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton, of the printing of his orders and the movements of his army in the press of the day, even as he was in direct confrontation with the enemy. Commanders of the Southern armies complained of similar difficulties keeping their plans and movements out of the Southern press.

More than 350 correspondents from Northern newspapers flooded the fronts during the Civil War, while their Southern contemporaries numbered about 150. All were under pressure from their editors to get stories and get them quickly. The use of the telegraph, carrier pigeons, and increasingly the railroads allowed stories to be filed and subsequently appear in print quickly. Often planned military movements were reported in the press before they were executed by the troops. Front line troops often exchanged coffee, tobacco, and newspapers with each other, ensuring both sides knew what the opposition was planning.

In response the Union Army attempted to impose news blackouts and established officers to review the stories being filed before they were sent. Reporters quickly found ways to circumvent those proscriptions, and the army established new barriers to submission. Denial of access to army telegraphers meant reporters had to use civilian facilities, paying as they went. Civilian telegrams were charged for by the word. Reporters had to change the manner in which they wrote. The flowery language prevalent in American newspapers prior to the Civil War gave way to the much more terse and economical language which prevailed in newspaper reporting through the twentieth century.

In February 1862 Congress passed legislation which allowed the President to seize control of the nation’s telegraph and rail facilities on a temporary basis in the event of a national emergency requiring such action. Edwin Stanton issued orders which made clear to all that telegraphic messages on the network relating to military operations were prohibited. He also made clear that any editor or reporter who violated the dictum would be banned from access to the network. Being cut off from the telegraph would initiate banishment from the railroads and the Post Office, effectively isolating the reporter from filing any stories.

Throughout the war the press and the government and military jockeyed for means of circumventing each other. Lincoln, and later US Grant, recognized the need to maintain good press relations to advance political agenda, and left the battle between the free press and the government to be fought by their underlings. Outright censorship was attempted many times, usually through cajoling and the promise of a quid pro quo, and seldom with the threat of reprisal. This led to many reporters, who were called “specials”, to file so-called eyewitness accounts of battles despite never getting to within fifty miles of the battlefield.

10 Situations in History When the US Government Suppressed the Press
The Committee for Public Information suppressed news and replaced it with propaganda in all forms of media during American involvement in World War I. Wikimedia

Censorship of the press during World War 1

Initially the control of what the press could or could not publish during the First World War was determined and controlled with all of the aplomb of a Three Stooges film. For example the press was not allowed to publish the embarkation of a given regiment onboard a ship bound for France for fear of providing the enemy with information of the strength of the American forces, as well as the fact of their being onboard being received by the U-boats which were marshaled in the Atlantic. But the society pages of the same newspaper could and did describe a recently married young American officer, of whatever regiment, having recently wed before deployment with his described unit to France. Dates were included to add drama.

Woodrow Wilson established the Committee of Public Information in April 1917 to not only censor the information being provided to the American public but to shape it to control public opinion. It was both an office for the suppression of the press and an office to use the press. The CPI was the first official propaganda office established by the United States government in the history of the nation. It created and distributed its own newspaper, the Daily Bulletin, which was provided to other newspapers and radio stations. It was also available on all military posts and fleet bases.

At first the American press were largely pleased with the CPI and faithfully reproduced its “news’ in their own columns. That ended in late 1917, when the CPI provided news of American destroyers sinking numerous U-boats while escorting American troopships to France. When the destroyer captains were interviewed by the press there and professed no knowledge of any such success against the U-boats, the CPI’s credibility took a nose dive. With The New York Times leading the way, the American press and radio news industries became leery of any “news” being fed to them by the CPI. With their reported “facts’ no longer being accepted by the media, the CPI began promoting hate propaganda.

The CPI did not limit its activities to the creation of false or misleading news reports, especially after they were exposed as being a propaganda organization. Instead it embraced its role by producing materials which were for the consumption of those who did not regularly read newspapers and magazines. Many, if not most, of the propaganda posters which were produced by the United States during World War 1 were the result of the efforts of the CPI. They also produced “newsreel” footage purporting to depict conditions at the front, though nearly all were filmed at training bases in the United States.

The CPI both censored true journalistic efforts to inform the public of the conditions faced by American troops and misinformed them of the events surrounding America’s war effort. It was supported in this task by the censorship of mail sent home by the troops, (the responsibility of commanding officers who frequently delegated the job) and of the press reports filed by correspondents. The CPI was disbanded after the war, and in a later war a different approach to both censorship and propaganda was adopted by the American government. While the CPI was a war measure, it was designed and implemented to control public opinion rather than increase national security, a clear action of the government to circumvent the First Amendment.

10 Situations in History When the US Government Suppressed the Press
Drydocked USS Yorktown having battle damage from the Coral Sea temporarily repaired so that the ship can join the fleet at Midway. US Navy

The Chicago Tribune Incident

In June 1942, after decoding Japanese radio transmissions which revealed their intention to invade and seize the island of Midway in the central Pacific, the United States Navy sent two task forces under the command of Admirals Jack Fletcher and Ray Spruance to ambush the Japanese fleet. The resulting battle of Midway was one of the turning points of World War II, a crushing American victory which saw the loss of four Japanese aircraft carriers to one for the Americans. From that point on the Japanese were on the defensive in the Pacific War. The advantage of being able to read their naval code remained a closely guarded secret.

Before the battle of Midway, the US Navy fought an aerial engagement from the aircraft carriers Lexington and Yorktown with the Japanese fleet in the Battle of the Coral Sea. Present on board Lexington was a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, Stanley Johnston. Lexington was lost during the battle and Johnston and the other survivors were repatriated to the United States. While onboard Lexington, Johnston learned of the American’s ability to decipher the Japanese code, and at some point he saw evidence of the Navy’s foreknowledge of the Japanese plans regarding Midway, including the ships to be involved and the diversionary attack in the Aleutian Islands.

On June 7, 1942, the day following the American victory at Midway, the Chicago Tribune ran a story written by Johnston under the headline, “Navy had Word of Jap Plan to Strike at Sea.” The article provided a detailed rundown of the Japanese ships deployed in the battle and the overall plan of attack, which was a complex battle plan involving strike forces, bombardment forces, invasion forces, and diversionary attacks. From reading the article, which was attributed to “reliable sources” serving in naval intelligence, the obvious inference to be made by the reader was that the Americans were able to read Japanese plans in advance of their execution.

An outraged President Roosevelt, a longtime enemy of Tribune owner Robert McCormick, ordered the prosecution of the newspaper under the terms of the Espionage Act of 1917. Despite pleadings from some in the intelligence community that doing so would increase publicity, the government proceeded to build a case, and in August the Justice Department brought the newspaper before a grand jury, seeking an indictment for publishing information which was an aid to the enemy. There it discovered that prosecuting the Tribune would mean revealing yet more classified information. It also meant that the Tribune would use the First Amendment as its primary defense, ensuring a nationwide story.

In the end the government dropped the case. The attempt to censor the Chicago Tribune and prosecute the paper for revealing classified information was concluded because even if the government had won the case, which is debatable, it risked losing much more. The story was soon replaced with headlines regarding the actions in and around the Solomon Islands. The Japanese either didn’t believe the story or they never heard of it because they did not change the code JN-25 in the aftermath of the Battle of Midway and American and British Intelligence continued to monitor their communications.

10 Situations in History When the US Government Suppressed the Press
Byron Price believed that in a free country the best person to run a censorship office was one who – like himself – hated censorship. Wikimedia

The Office of Censorship

Under the authority granted him by the First War Powers Act which was enacted by Congress in December 1941, President Roosevelt issued an Executive Order on December 19, 1941 which established the Office of Censorship. The Office not only censored news stories by the war correspondents which accompanied the troops and fleets, but all communications, including private mail and telegrams, which crossed the borders of the United States. It also censored radio broadcasts, films, and international telephone communications. Unlike the CPI of the previous World War, the Office of Censorship was not involved in propaganda activities.

The Office established a hotline which was manned 24 hours a day, where editors could discuss potentially harmful stories with the censors. Officially only stories which affected the war effort were to come under censorship, but the war touched nearly all aspects of American life. Stories which described the black market for rationed items could be used by the enemy as propaganda and were thus subject to censorship by the government. Popular radio programs which featured the interviews of people at random were discontinued because of the risk of enemy agents or sympathizers being given a voice. Radio stations were also forced to stop complying with listeners requests for specific music, to prevent their use as signals to agents.

The government limited the broadcast of weather forecasts, especially early in the war, because too detailed weather information was deemed to be aiding the enemy in the event of an attack being planned. Baseball and football games continued to be broadcast throughout the war, but discussion of the weather conditions during the games was restricted, other than the announcement of rain delays during baseball games. On both coasts only the government approved weather announcements were allowed in order to prevent information regarding pending weather conditions being monitored by submarines.

The Director of the Office of Censorship, former Associated Press member Byron Price, reported directly to FDR, which allowed FDR to censor reports of his activities and whereabouts throughout the war. FDR could specify what was said of him in the press and when it was said, and reports of his activities often didn’t appear in the press until well after they were completed. The President’s trips to overseas meetings with Churchill and Stalin at Tehran and Yalta were censored in this manner and his rapidly declining health late in the war was also kept from the public through the use of censorship. For the most part the press co-operated with the censorship.

As the military situation improved on all fronts and the possibility of attack on the United States waned the restrictions imposed by the Office of Censorship eased, but those regarding overseas communications remained in effect throughout the war. Besides the notable failure of the censors to stop the publication by the Chicago Tribune of the article which clearly implied the Americans ability to decipher Japanese coded communications, and another which was the fault of a US Congressman, Andrew Jackson May, censorship during the war was largely successful from the point of view of the government.

10 Situations in History When the US Government Suppressed the Press
USS Wahoo being launched at Mare Island Naval Shipyard in 1942. Wahoo and all hands were lost to Japanese depth charge attack on October 11, 1943. US Navy

The May Incident

The need for some form of censorship which blocks complete freedom of speech during wartime was clearly demonstrated by the May Incident of 1943. Andrew Jackson May was a member of the US House of Representatives from Kentucky. During the war he was the Chairman of the House Military Affairs Committee, a position from which he used his influence to direct contracts to business partners, accepting bribes and kickbacks for his efforts. Eventually he would go to prison for his graft, but before that he violated censorship rules in a manner which led to the loss of American submarines and their crews.

US submarines in the Pacific had by 1943 overcome many of the technical problems they had encountered with torpedoes early in the war, and sinkings of Japanese ships were steadily increasing. The Japanese had mistakenly estimated the maximum depths at which US submarines could operate, and when attacking them with depth charges they frequently set the depth at which the charges would explode at a too shallow level. Americans could foil the attacks by diving beneath them as they evaded the Japanese ships following an attack of their own.

In June 1943 May completed a fact finding trip to Hawaii and other locales in the war zone before returning to hold a press conference in Washington DC. At the press conference May announced the growing success of the American submarine campaign and the reasons why the submarines were performing so efficiently. May told the assembled reporters that the Japanese were setting their depth charges to explode at too shallow depths. The information coming from a US Congressman and head of the Military Affairs Committee was deemed to be printable by several of the reporters present, who filed the story with their editors.

The story appeared in several newspapers across the United States and in the Territory of Hawaii, as well as in newspapers in Australia and other areas in which US submarines operated. Within a month, submarine losses began to mount. Admiral Lockwood, commander of the US submarine forces in the Pacific, commented that Congressman May would be pleased to “…know that they set’em deeper now.” The actual cause of most of the submarines losses during the war was unknown until after the war, when the United States Navy was able to review the records and reports of the Imperial Japanese Navy.

Of the fifty-three American submarines lost in the Pacific, nineteen were attributed to depth charges dropped from surface ships and aircraft. All nineteen, with the loss of over 1,500 officers and crew, occurred after the press conference held by Andrew May. Whether the Japanese would have made the discovery on their own, as has been argued by some historians, is a matter of speculation. The need to apply censorship in some form during wartime to protect the lives of Americans cannot be demonstrated more clearly than in the May Incident. It was likely the worst failure to censor sensitive information during the entire Second World War.

10 Situations in History When the US Government Suppressed the Press
Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote a dissenting opinion in the case New York Times Co. v. The United States. All nine of the justices wrote opinions in the 6-3 decision. Library of Congress

New York Times Company v. The United States

When The New York Times published the first installments of the Pentagon Papers, Richard Nixon’s immediate reaction was to ignore it, since they embarrassed the administrations of his predecessor’s rather than his own. His aides, led by Henry Kissinger, convinced him that allowing the press to run them unrestrained was unwise, establishing a precedent which could become harmful to the administration in the future. Nixon asked his Attorney General, John Mitchell, to persuade The New York Times and The Washington Post, to cease publication for reasons of national security.

When the Times continued to publish the installments the Nixon Administration, citing the Espionage Act of 1917, obtained an injunction which ordered the Times to cease publication. The Times appealed the decision and the case quickly ran up the court system to the Supreme Court. Meanwhile an injunction against The Washington Post was sought and denied by Judge Murray Gurfein. The government appealed that decision and that case too ran up through the courts until the Supreme Court agreed to hear it simultaneously with that of The New York Times. Meanwhile the Nixon administration began an anti-media campaign.

On June 30, 1971 the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Times and the Post by a vote of 6-3. The ruling found that the government had not met their obligation of providing the burden of proof required for a judgment. In an unusual move, all nine Justices wrote opinions on the case, and these revealed that the overwhelming issue had been freedom of the press as protected by the First Amendment. Justice Hugo Black wrote in his opinion, “And paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people and sending them off to distant lands to die of foreign fevers and foreign shot and shell.”

The Chief Justice of the United States, Warren Burger, dissented with the majority, as did Justices Harlan and Blackmon. They argued that the proceedings had been conducted with unnecessary haste, that there had not been enough time to digest all of the information contained in the disputed documents, and that the Times and the Post should have given the government an opportunity to air its concerns prior to publication. Burger argued that although a free press was imperative, equally imperative was the functioning of a “complex modern government.”

The Pentagon Papers was not the first, nor the last time that Richard Nixon attempted to stifle the reporting of the free press. Nor was it the first nor last time that he cited “national security” as his reasons for doing so. There are times when national security trumps the people’s right to know, as demonstrated by the May Incident in 1943. When the argument is used to prevent the public of learning of events which are already a part of history, as with the Pentagon Papers, in seems that national security is used to cover political security, an altogether different issue.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“World Press Freedom Index”, Reporters Without Borders, 2018

“Imperiled Innocents: Anthony Comstock and Family Reproduction in Victorian America”, by Nicola Beisel, 1997

“The Age of Federalism”, by Stanley M. Elkins and Eric McKitrick, 1995

“Congress Passes the Sedition Act, May 16, 1918”, by Andrew Glass, Politico, May 16, 2012

“Lincoln and the Power of the Press”, by Harold Holzer, The New York Times, October 31, 2014

“How the Civil War gave birth to modern journalism in the nation’s capital”, by Paul Farhi, The Washington Post, March 2. 2012

“George Creel Sounds Call To Unselfish National Service To Newspaper Men”, Editor and Publisher Magazine, August 17, 1918

“Breaking the code on a Chicago mystery from World War II”, by the Editorial Board, The Chicago Tribune, September 23, 2016

“Avoiding Bloodshed? US Journalists and Censorship in Wartime”, by Daniel Smyth, War and Society, Volume 32, 2013

“Silent Victory: The US Submarine War against Japan”, by Clay Blair Jr, 2001

“The Pentagon Papers”, by John T. Correll, Air Force Magazine, February 2007