In January, I saw Steven Spielberg’s movie ‘The Post’ starring Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep. It was a great movie and interestingly relevant given I learned about the New York Times v. United States Supreme Court case in my Fall graduate media law class and wrote a case summary about it. It’s also relevant because it comes at a time when the integrity of journalism as a profession is increasingly and constantly scrutinized. That’s a whole other blog post!
Back to 'The Post'…
According to the movie review website Rotten Tomatoes, The Post is “ a thrilling drama
about the unlikely partnership between The Washington Post's Katharine Graham (Streep), the first female publisher of a major American newspaper, and editor Ben Bradlee (Hanks), as they race to catch up with The New York Times to expose a massive cover-up of government secrets that spanned three decades and four U.S. Presidents. The two must overcome their differences as they risk their careers - and their very freedom - to help bring long-buried truths to light.”
In the movie, viewers got a clear understanding of the influence and prominence of The New York Times and how The Washington Post aspired to be as well-known and widespread as its northern competitor.
While the movie touched on the outcome of the case, 6-3 in favor of The New York Times, it didn’t delve into the varying opinions of the Supreme Court Justices concerning the freedom of the press and its role in holding the government accountable to the voters.
Here is a look at what happened:
The Court Case
In 1971, Daniel Ellsberg, a government contractor and one of the authors of an official Pentagon analysis of the United States involvement in the Vietnam War, leaked portions of the classified study, commonly known as the Pentagon Papers, to The New York Times and other newspapers. The Times reviewed the documents over the course of three months and found that the Nixon and Johnson administration misled the public as to the reasons why the U.S. was at a war with Vietnam.
After reviewing the documents, the newspaper thought the public had a right to know and published it as part of a series. The first part ran on a Sunday with another part running the next day. At the time, U.S. attorney general, John Mitchell asked The Times to stop publishing the stories because they violated the Espionage Act. When The Times refused, Mitchell went to court to stop the paper from publishing any more of the report and cited national security.
Soon after, The Washington Post rushed to report on the Pentagon Papers and the Attorney General asked a court for a temporary restraining order, or injunction, to stop the paper from publishing any parts of the Pentagon Papers.
What Happened in the Courts?
After making its way through two separate trial and appeals courts in New York (The New York Times) and Washington, D.C. (The Washington Post), the case found itself at the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS).
The question the SCOTUS had to decide was if under the First Amendment, can newspapers be stopped from publishing reports the Executive Branch deems a threat to national security? Ultimately, the answer is “no.”
The majority opinion of the court was that ultimately, the government was unable to meet the high burden justifying why prior restraint, or censoring the media was necessary.
Each of the concurring Justices made valid points supporting their decision based on the principles of the First Amendment and the freedom of the press, and previous court decisions which served as precedents for the case.
Come back next week for Part II, a look at the concurring opinions and the dissents of the Justices.