Freedom of the Press in the First Amendment
We, in this society, have the privilege of expressing our opinion without any external interferences. To reap this consequence, our history has built and amended Constitutions of the US. The First Amendment, one of the amendments in the Bill of Rights, ensures the freedom of speech. However, this amendment does not guarantee the absolute right of speech and freedom of the press. The New York Times Co. v. United States Supreme Court case becomes a turning point of freedom of the press, which had not been absolutely guaranteed.
The New York Times Co. v. United States case is a core event of the First Amendment. In 1971, The New York Times acquired a copy of documents, The Pentagon Papers – “an internal Defense Department report that detailed government deception and involvement with regard to the Vietnam War” (New York Times Co. v. United States). The Pentagon Papers demonstrates that the American government had systematically deceived to the people regarding to the Vietnam War, and consequently it harmed the credibility of the United States’ Cold War foreign policy (“Cold War”). Therefore, the government restricted the publication of The Pentagon Papers in light of national security and defense. Despite the United States’ contention, the Supreme Court freed The New York Times and The Washington Post to publish The Pentagon Papers by 6-3 decision (Sheehan et al. ix-x).
This issue has been contentious due to the fact that it was a collision between national security and freedom of the press. Dissenting justices from this sentence argued that the ultimate role of the press is to deliver publishable information, not to divulge national secrets under the name of public’s right to know (Burger 669-670). Mr. Justice Blackmun viewed the First Amendment as a part of the Constitution, therefore, the freedom of the press should not overweigh the national security (Blackmun 676). Furthermore, dissenting justices asserted that divulge during the wartime would generate military casualties, the inability of negotiation, and annihilation of alliances. (Blackmun 677). Simply put, the civilian and nation protection is way more urgent than the people’s right to know.
On the contrary, concurring justices asserted that US government restrained The Pentagon Papers, as The Pentagon Papers revealed what the government had desperately tried to conceal. Mr. Justice White and Stewart mentioned that prior restraints require justifications to proscribe the publication. However, the government failed to justify their restrictions to convict for criminal publication (White 666). Justices could not find any materials that would severely wreak havoc on the US. Moreover, the point of the First Amendment is against “the use of the common law of seditious libel to punish the dissemination of material that is embarrassing to the powers-that-be” (Sheehan et al. 654). The government is afraid of impeachment of its power and credibility. The role of the press is to scrutinize government and inform the truth as eyes and ears of the people. The First Amendment legally protects press from restraint of authority.
I personally concur with the decision of the Supreme Court despite the uncertainty of threats and damage of The Pentagon Papers to US military. The primary purpose of mass media is to fulfill people’s right to know and inform the truth.As citizens, all Americans have the rights to know every decision and action of the government. At that time, most Americans were suspicious of the involvement of the United States in the Vietnam War. What The Pentagon Papers did was what every press is supposed to do.
Furthermore, media should not be subjugated to government. The reason of censorship is to maintain the power, approval rating, and credibility of government. According to Mr. Justices Black and Douglas, “no one can read accurate history when authority interferes” (664). If government steps in the media, the truth and coverage will be distorted and manipulated by government’s interest. Therefore, press has to be separated from the government in any circumstances in order for people to know the truth and be critical to their government. That is the point of the First Amendment.
In opposition to dissenting justices’ arguments, the concept of publishable materials is ambiguous. In terms of people’s right to know and the role of mass media as mentioned above, The Pentagon Papers had to be allowed. Even though the language and boundary of the First Amendment are obscure, the ultimate purpose of the First Amendment is prevention of freedom of the press from restriction of power. If the standard of publishable materials is determined by the government, it is definitely out of the purpose of the First Amendment.
The New York Time Co. v. United States Supreme Court case became a catalyst for propagating the significance of press freedom. This case was the first case of upholding the First Amendment since the US government adopted the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. After this case, the court has adjudicated the protection of press libel from the government. Despite the fact that many states still deem libel criminal offense, in 2012 Colorado State officially abolished criminal libel law (United States | Freedom of the press). The US society is still moving forward to achieve the absolute freedom of press since this case.
The Pentagon Papers case proves the conflict between the government and the First Amendment and leaves the cultural and social legacy on the US society. Furthermore, this case demonstrates how we can overcome the limitation of the freedom of the press in the First Amendment. I personally believe that the First Amendment has to be absolute, and it it is our duty for defending our rights.