December 14, 2015

Pentagon Papers


Mabel McKinney-Browning, director of the American Bar Association Division for Public Education; and

Bruce Ragsdale, director of the Federal Judicial History Office at the Federal Judicial Center


Program Overview

This session, conducted in collaboration between the ABA Division for Public Education and the Federal Judicial Center, will delve into the story of the trial of Daniel Ellsberg, who discovered and released the Pentagon Papers in 1971. The Pentagon Papers included classified documents related to Pentagon decision-making in the Vietnam War. Ellsberg released copies of the papers to the New York Times and other newspapers. He, along with Anthony Russo, faced federal trial starting in 1973 in Los Angeles, charged under the Espionage Act of 1917. As evidence of gross misconduct and illegal information gathering by the government against Ellsberg emerged, the case was dismissed from federal court. Ultimately, the trial led to resignations within the Nixon administration, and questions from the American public about classified activities of the federal government.

The story of the Daniel Ellsberg trial serves as a an example of how federal trials can provide ample opportunities for primary source analysis and be incorporated into a social studies curriculum to provide engaging learning and discussion opportunities for students.

The session will also highlight recent cases involving public disclosures of sensitive or secret data, including WikiLeaks, Private Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden, and a pending U.S. Supreme Court case involving the disclosure of sensitive airline security information by a whistleblower. Together these cases serve as an excellent entry point into a discussion of the how national security interests and free speech rights sometimes come into conflict and what factors courts take into effectuating a balance when they do.


Session Materials

Supreme Court opinion excerpt

Goldberg Congressional testimony excerpt

Edward Snowden’s Indictment

National Security Case Studies


Additional Materials

Pentagon Papers Case -- NYT v. US (1971) (prior restraint)

Pentagon Papers timeline

Reading a SCOTUS Opinion

“Does Whistleblower Protection Protect a TSA Worker Who Revealed Which Flights Would Lack Air Marshalls,” ABA Preview of United States Supreme Court Cases (October 2014)

National Security and First Amendment Timeline

"National Security v. Right to Know" (First Amendment Center)

"Free Speech and National Security," by Prof. Geoffrey Stone, University of Chicago Law School