June 13, 2011
The Pentagon Papers

The Supreme Court's decision to uphold The New York Times's right to publish the Pentagon Papers is the top news in this July 1, 1971, edition. (Courtesy The New York Times)

40 Years Ago in News History: The Pentagon Papers

On June 13, 1971, The New York Times began publishing stories based on the Pentagon Papers, a classified document about the controversial Vietnam War that had been leaked to the Times by Daniel Ellsberg, a military analyst.

Officially titled "United States–Vietnam Relations, 1945-1967: A Study Prepared by the Department of Defense," the top-secret document — which was declassified and released in its complete form June 13, 2011, to mark the 40th anniversary of its publication — exposed a litany of government deception and lies to the public and Congress about the war in Southeast Asia.

The Times published three articles before the government obtained a court order to block further publication, declaring that the stories were a national security breach. The Times appealed the ruling, and the case landed in the Supreme Court less than two weeks after the first story was released.

On June 18, The Washington Post began running its own articles on the leaked documents, despite efforts by the government to halt publication. Other newspapers with copies, including The Boston Globe and the Chicago Tribune, began printing stories, as well.

On June 30, the Supreme Court ruled in a 6-3 vote that the government had shown no justification to keep the Times from publishing the stories. Only in extraordinary circumstances, the court said, could the government enforce prior restraint on the press.

The story of the press and prior restraint is told in the Cox Enterprises First Amendment Gallery. Copies of the Pentagon Papers are on display in the News Corporation News History Gallery as part of an exhibit on First Amendment freedoms.

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