The Pentagon Papers and Speech

Freedom of press is derived from freedom of speech and confers that expressions by the press are protected against unreasonable restrictions.  New York Times v. United States demonstrates the dimensions of this freedom. This case centers around the preemptive attempt by the Nixon administration to restrict the publication of the Pentagon Papers. As a history geek, the existence of the Pentagon Papers is like a pragmatic goldmine of information pertaining to U.S foreign policy dynamics. The Pentagon Papers are an extensive collection of documents and historical narratives detailing the United States involvement in the Vietnam War. The papers confirm that the United States’ actions within the Vietnam War were dubiously veiled attempts to further U.S policy goals, actions that occurred at the expense of Vietnamese lives and without a genuine imperative to help these lives.

The existence of these papers became known to the Nixon administration, that wanted to block the publishing of the papers in that they obviously derailed the mission of the Vietnam War and projected criticism onto American war efforts. The act of restricting speech before it happens is known as prior restraint, a controversial move that usually requires an important governmental need that overrides the protections afforded by the freedom of speech. The administration cited the need to maintain secrecy over fears of stifling the war movement by turning public opinion against the war. The papers indicated widespread dishonesty by Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration and deeply entrenched American involvement in Vietnam’s internal affairs both before and during its deployment into Vietnam.

The government effectively argued that the release of its own reports detailing its own actions were damaging to its military operations and foreign interactions. These harmful effects were supposedly enough to justify prior restraint, preventing the New York Times and other publications from moving forward with publication. However, the Court ruled otherwise, stating that the government failed to overcome the heavy presumption against constitutionality that is defaulted in instances of abridging freedom of speech. This decision reinforced the sanctity of the freedom of speech by critically evaluating and weighing the governments claims for prior restraint against the need to protect freedom of press. It also allowed the publication of the Pentagon Papers, an important moment in the course of American history. These papers shed light on the Vietnam conflict and showed the depth of American entanglement in the sovereignty of other nations. The lessons gained from this document are endless and speak to the issues of present day military conflicts.

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