Lesson Plan: Landmark Supreme Court Case - New York Times v United States (1971)

The Pentagon Papers and New York Times v. United States

In discussing the landmark Supreme Court Case New York Times v. United States (1971), attorneys Floyd Abrams and Ted Olson explained what the Pentagon Papers were and why the government wanted to restrict its publication.

Description

New York Times v. United States, better known as the “Pentagon Papers” case, was a decision expanding freedom of the press and limits on the government's power to interrupt that freedom. President Richard Nixon used his executive authority to prevent the New York Times from publishing top secret documents pertaining to U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. In a 6-3 decision, the Court ruled that the President’s attempt to prevent the publication was a violation of First Amendment protections for press freedom. This lesson has students explore the background of the New York Times v. United States, the arguments made during the case and its legacy.

Procedures

  • STEP 1:

    As a class, view the following five videos and engage in class discussion to provide context for this case and its connection with the First Amendment.

    Use the accompanying questions below or the notetaking chart in the Handout (Google Doc) as a guide.

    HANDOUT: New York Times v. United States Notetaking Chart

  • VIDEO CLIP: The Pentagon Papers and New York Times v. United States (2:59)

    • Describe what was happening in the Vietnam War in 1971?
    • What were the Pentagon Papers and why were they created?
    • Why did the government want to keep the Pentagon Papers secret?
  • VIDEO CLIP: The Events Leading to New York Times v. United States (5:39)

    • Who was Daniel Ellsberg and why did he leak the Pentagon Papers?
    • How was the timeframe of this Supreme Court Case different than most cases?
    • Describe the process in which the New York Times selected which materials to publish?
    • What arguments did the New York Times make for publishing selections of the Pentagon Papers?
  • VIDEO CLIP: New York Times v. United States- Nixon's Decision to go to Court (5:12)

    • Besides taking the New York Times to court, what else could Nixon have done in response to the release of the Pentagon Papers?
    • Based on Nixon's recording, describe President Nixon's reaction to the publication of the Pentagon Papers.
    • What were the reasons for Nixon taking the New York Times to court?
  • VIDEO CLIP: New York Times v. United States- Other Papers Publishing the Pentagon Papers (4:33)

    • According to Mr. Abrams, why was Ellsberg's decision to release the Pentagon Papers to newspapers other than the New York Times a smart move?
    • How did the publication of the Pentagon Papers in multiple newspapers impact the government's ability to prosecute the case?
  • VIDEO CLIP: The Legal Framework for New York Times v. United States (4:26)

    • What was the Constitutional provision involved with this case?
    • What was the exception to restrictions of prior restraint that was found in the 1931 case, Near v. Minnesota? How was this precedent used in New York Times v. United States?
    • What did the Espionage Act of 1917 do? What did it not do?
    • What does prior restraint mean?
  • STEP 2: View the videos below to learn about the oral arguments and the decision.

  • VIDEO CLIP: New York Times v. United States- Oral Arguments for the New York Times (3:29)

    • What arguments does Alexander Bickel make for the New York Times?
    • Describe the strategy that Mr. Bickel uses in making these arguments.
  • VIDEO CLIP: New York Times v. United States- Oral Arguments for the United States (2:32)

    • What arguments does Erwin Griswold make for the United States?
    • What were the weakness of Mr. Griswold's arguments during the case?
  • VIDEO CLIP: The Decision in New York Times v. United States (5:21)

    • How did the Supreme Court rule in New York Times v. United States?
    • Explain the opinions in the per curiam and the concurrence.
    • Explain the opinions in the dissents.
    • What were some of the complaints that the justices had about the case? How did thoseconflict with the restrictions on prior restraint?
  • VIDEO CLIP: The Legacy of New York Times v. United States (4:25)

    • How has the ruling in New York Times v. United States impacted other cases?
    • What does Mr. Abrams mean when he says that barriers to prior restraint are "not absolute?" What are examples of this?
    • Based on this case, why is the barrier for restricting prior restraint so tough to overcome?
  • APPLICATION:

    Using the standard established in New York Times v. United States, come up with an example of a situation where the government would be able to use prior restraint to restrict a publication. Be prepared to explain why this situation would meet this standard.

  • EXTENSION ACTIVITIES:

    New York Times v. United States Today- How might the events of the case look if it occurred today? How would the case be different with today's media climate and current technology? Would it be decided in the same way with our current Supreme Court?

    Additional Prompts-

    • How does the ruling in New York Times v. United States impact you?
    • Can government leaks be beneficial? Explain your answer.
    • Should there be restrictions to the freedom of press? Explain your answer.
    • Should the government have the power to use prior restraint to restrict speech? Explain your answer.

Additional Resources

Vocabulary

  • 1st Amendment
  • Absolutist
  • Alexander Haig
  • Appeals
  • Breach
  • Classified
  • Commission
  • Concurrence
  • Constitution
  • Diplomacy
  • Dissent
  • Espionage Act Of 1917
  • First Amendment
  • Freedom Of Press
  • Gag Orders
  • Henry Kissinger
  • Injunction
  • Irreparable Harm
  • Judicial Decree
  • Leaks
  • Near V. Minnesota
  • Oral Arguments
  • Pentagon Papers
  • Per Curiam
  • Prior Restraint
  • Prosecute
  • Richard Nixon
  • Solicitor General
  • Statute
  • Supreme Court
  • Vietnam War
  • Washington Post

Topics

Civil Rights & Civil LibertiesMediaSupreme Court CasesU.S. History

Grades

High SchoolUniversity