The First Amendment is a highly important legislative element of the United States Constitution, which protects two major institutions and rights. It explicitly protects people’s freedom of speech and the press as the main channels of distribution of information. Although it was intended to do so, the history of the First Amendment showcases how the government was able to violate it, justifying these actions for a multitude of reasons, which might have seemed valid at that time. However, the Supreme Court’s stance gradually changed on the problem, which is why it is in its ideal state today.
One of the key turning points for the First Amendment came during the case in regards to the Pentagon Papers. The latter is a 7000-page top-secret classified report on the Department of Defense’s actions and decisions during the Vietnam War, which revealed that there was a great deal of incompetence from the Pentagon’s side (Freedom of the Press: New York Times v. United States). The secrecy of information was not solely based on the sensitivity and security of the report but rather on a fear of public outrage aimed at the Department’s poor choices. A former employee at the Pentagon leaked the report and tried to convince the Supreme Court to declassify information but was denied in the process, which is why he gave the report to the New York Times, where the latter released it to the public (Freedom of the Press: New York Times v. United States). This is an illustration of how citizens and the press collaborate on ensuring that the government is kept in check for its actions and decision.
The Nixon Administration and the Department of Defense sought to restrain the New York Times, and later, the Washington Post from releasing the report to the public, justifying it by potential security risks associated with the release. The Supreme Court ruled out for such restraint to be unconstitutional since the majority agreed to disable the release only in the face of grave danger for the nation, which the report did not contain (Freedom of the Press: New York Times v. United States). In other words, the First Amendment was always in action, except if an entire country is endangered by the public release of information, which was not the case for the Pentagon Papers. The dissenting opinion argued that even potential risks are enough to block the First Amendment for such situations.
I think the release of the report did not put the nation at risk since the report contained critical information on poor decision making of the Department rather sensitive information, which posed a grave danger to the US. The government should be allowed to have secrecy only if it can prove that releasing the information poses a national risk, which means it is the government’s responsibility to provide strong claims for having something classified. Democracy cannot function effectively without the critical role of the press because freedom of speech alone cannot be as impactful as it is with the press’s information distribution capabilities and competencies.
In conclusion, the First Amendment was initially established due to its impact during the Revolution, but later, a number of attempts were made to subdue the law in accordance with the need of the government’s demands. However, the Supreme Court’s intervention during the Pentagon Papers’ release by the press restored the critical purpose of freedom of speech alongside the press. The public needs to be well-informed in order for a democracy to work properly, which is why the First Amendment must be protected at all costs.
“Freedom of the Press: New York Times v. United States.” Annenberg Public Policy Center, uploaded by Annenberg Public Policy Center.