Back in 1971, Justice Hugo Black issued an extremely well-reasoned concurring opinion in the case of New York Times v United States. Many things have changed since 1971, but this clear-headed opinion addresses many aspects of the current controversy involving Edward Snowden. Back in 1971, The NYT had begun publishing installments of the then-classified Pentagon Papers, which indicated that America’s war efforts were a sham, and that America had little to no hope of success in the conflict. This was sharply at odds with what U.S. politicians had be telling the public. In response to the initial publication installments, President Richard Nixon’s Attorney General, John Mitchell, filed an injunction action seeking to prevent publication of further installments. The injunction was granted, and the case quickly rose up for review by the United States Supreme Court. There was no majority opinion, but the divided court did vote 6-3 to reverse the trial court and to allow the NYT to continue publication. The following excerpts are from Justice Black’s concurrence:
“[T]he injunction against the New York Times should have been vacated without oral argument when the cases were first presented … . [E]very moment’s continuance of the injunctions … amounts to a flagrant, indefensible, and continuing violation of the First Amendment. … When the Constitution was adopted, many people strongly opposed it because the document contained no Bill of Rights … . In response to an overwhelming public clamor, James Madison offered a series of amendments to satisfy citizens that these great liberties would remain safe … . In the First Amendment the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors. The Government’s power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the Government. The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the people. Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government. And paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people and sending them off to distant lands to die of foreign fevers and foreign shot and shell. … [W]e are asked to hold that … the Executive Branch, the Congress, and the Judiciary can make laws … abridging freedom of the press in the name of ‘national security.’ … To find that the President has ‘inherent power’ to halt the publication of news … would wipe out the First Amendment and destroy the fundamental liberty and security of the very people the Government hopes to make ‘secure.’ … The word ‘security’ is a broad, vague generality whose contours should not be invoked to abrogate the fundamental law embodied in the First Amendment. The guarding of military and diplomatic secrets at the expense of informed representative government provides no real security … . The Framers of the First Amendment, fully aware of both the need to defend a new nation and the abuses of the English and Colonial governments, sought to give this new society strength and security by providing that freedom of speech, press, religion, and assembly should not be abridged.
The government had based its case on the Espionage Act of 1917. I’m reprinting an excerpt from the Act immediately below. One can immediately see how vague (arguably constitutionally defectively vague) and broad (arguably constitutionally overbroad) at least this portion of the Act is, something to keep in mind when considering that this is the law the government is supposedly enforcing in modern times to punish whistle-blowers, including Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden.
Section 793(e) of the act (a section that Snowden was apparently charged under) makes it a criminal offense to do the following:
Whoever having unauthorized possession of, access to, or control over any document, writing, code book, signal book, sketch, photograph, photographic negative, blueprint, plan, map, model, instrument, appliance, or note relating to the national defense, or information relating to the national defense which information the possessor has reason to believe could be used to the injury of the United States or to the advantage of any foreign nation, willfully communicates, delivers, transmits or causes to be communicated, delivered, or transmitted, or attempts to communicate, deliver, transmit or cause to be communicated, delivered, or transmitted the same to any person not entitled to receive it, or willfully retains the same and fails to deliver it to the officer or employee of the United States entitled to receive it.