Presidents v. Press: How the Pentagon Papers Leak Set Up First Amendment Showdowns

Efforts to clamp down on White House leaks to the press follow a pattern that was set during the Nixon era after the publication of the Pentagon Papers.

In 1971, President Richard M. Nixon went to war with the press over a classified leak published in The New York Times. It was called the Pentagon Papers and it became one of the most storied leaks in American history.

Weighing in at 7000 pages, the report revealed how president after president had misled the public about their country’s role in escalating the Vietnam War. But the leak’s true importance came in the Supreme Court, which, in ruling against Nixon’s attempt to bar publication of the report, set strict limits for future presidents who might wish to do the same.

The Pentagon Papers case was a watershed moment for press freedom and for the public’s right to know many government secrets. But the ruling left open a potent weapon to go after leakers — the Espionage Act.

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For teachers
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  • Producer: Kit R. Roane
  • Associate Producer: Lisa Hale
  • Additional Editor: Gonda-Bastian Sinagowitz
  • Additional Producer: Peter Klein
  • Update Producer: Sianne Garlick
  • Update Producer: Sandra McDaniel
  • Update Editor: Cullen Golden

For Educators


This 12-minute video clarifies the connections between the New York Times Co. v. United States Supreme Court case and the recent battles that Presidents Obama and Trump have fought to contain national security leaks. Focusing on the broader issues of freedom of the press in a democracy, the video helps students draw a line between the New York Times decision from 1971 and the ongoing disputes between the public’s right to know and the president’s right to secrecy. Useful for examining the First Amendment and the role of the press in a democratic society, the video also provides students with the historical context surrounding the Pentagon Papers, and the Vietnam War and consequences of the New York Times Court decision.

Background reading

On June 13, 1971, The New York Times published the “Pentagon Papers” and raised a question that continues to be debated: what is the role of the free press?

The Times published the trove of secret documents because it believed the American public should know it had been misled and deceived by numerous presidents about escalating the Vietnam War.

President Richard M. Nixon thought the press had no right to publish any “secret documents” and filed suit to stop their publication, only to have the case wind up before the U.S. Supreme Court.

The court affirmed The Times right to publish.

But in the post-9/11 era, the boundaries of the government – and the press – are still being debated, as the digital age has made it easy to release reams of secret material with a keystroke.

The Obama Administration charged eight people with violating the Espionage Act for sharing government secrets with the press – more people than had been charged by all previous administrations combined.

No sooner did Donald Trump take office, then he began a continuing campaign to denigrate the mainstream press as purveyors of “fake news,” which seemed to be anything that did not agree with him.

That raised an old question: what is the role of the press? To only report the story sanctioned by the government – or to report out the unofficial story behind it?

Lesson Plan 1: Presidents v. Press: How the Pentagon Papers Leak Set Up First Amendment Showdowns

Students will learn about the Pentagon Papers during Nixon’s presidency, the long history of U.S. presidents battling national security leaks and the role of a free press in America’s democracy.


Students will:

  • Learn about the importance of the “Pentagon Papers” and how they led to a Supreme Court ruling in the New York Times Co. v. United States.
  • Learn how the administration of Richard Nixon sought to suppress national security leaks.
  • Compare how the actions of Presidents Obama and Trump have revived the debate over national security leaks and press freedom that emerged during the Nixon administration.
Essential questions
  • What dispute led to the New York Times Co. v. United States case in the Supreme Court? How was the case decided?
  • How did President Nixon respond to the Court case? What actions did he take against Daniel Ellsberg? What is the link between Nixon’s response to the New York Times case and Watergate?
  • How did President Obama seek to limit national security leaks? How did his actions affect journalists?
  • How has the “digital era” affected national security leaks?
  • How has President Trump responded to national security leaks?
  • Common Core State Standards
    • CCSS.ELA.LITERACY.RH.11-12.7:Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.
    • CCSS.ELA.LITERACY.RI.11-12.3:Analyze a complex set of ideas or sequences of events and explain how specific individuals, ideas, or events interact or develop over the course of a text.
  • National Council for the Social Studies C3 Framework
    • D2.Civ.4.9-12.Explain how the U.S. Constitution establishes a system of government that has powers, responsibilities, and limits that have changed over time and that are still contested.
  • AP U.S. History
    • Period 8: 1945-1980
  • AP Government and Politics
    • Unit 3: Civil Liberties & Rights
    • Topic 3.4: First Amendment: Freedom of the Press

      Skill 2B: Explain how New York Times Co. v. United States relates to a foundational document.

      Theme: Liberty and Order (LOR)