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Jeanne Doremus
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The Legacy of the Pentagon Papers

The Legacy of the Pentagon Papers

Jeanne Doremus of the Vineland, N.J., Public Schools.

Jeanne Doremus
Vineland Public Schools
Vineland, N.J.

Subject: Freedom of the press

Title: The Legacy of the Pentagon Papers

Description of School and Students

This curriculum can be taught to high school United States history students as part of a unit on the Vietnam War. It can also be used in a course on political and legal education or government. It is assumed that students have had background on the war and the controversy surrounding it.

Generative Topic
National Security and Freedom of the Press

Generative Object
Pictures of men and women in military uniform, a battle scene, a military cemetery, reference to the film, "Saving Private Ryan."

Understanding Goals

  1. Essential or Guiding Question
    • Is the military ever justified in limiting speech?
  2. Critical Engagement Questions
    1. What is prior restraint? Why is prior restraint dangerous in a democracy?
    2. When is it legitimate to keep information from the press? Who makes that decision? Why?
    3. Would the Supreme Court decision in New York Times v. United States (1971) be the same today? Why or why not?
    4. What effect will modern communications technology have on the relationships between the press, the
      government (the military) and the courts?

Performances of Understanding, Rationale, and Time Line
In learning about the Vietnam War, students must understand both the context of the war, and the aftermath of the war, and how decisions that were made impacted our institutions and fundamental beliefs. The Supreme Court decision in New York Times v. United States, 1971, the Vietnam War and Watergate all contributed to the development of governmental mistrust among the press and the citizenry. This mistrust has profound significance, given the changes in communications technology and the persistent tension between the press (and the citizenry) and the government. This mutual mistrust, and the changing political philosophy of the Supreme Court, could result in further restriction on the press in matters of "national security". The basic activity is a Supreme Court simulation, designed to follow as closely as possible actual Supreme Court procedure.

Activity 1
One class period, 40-50 minutes

Students are given background information on the Pentagon Papers (see Bill of Rights in Action, Winter 1988 for an abridged version), without the Supreme Court decision in New York Times v. United States (403 U.S. 713, 1971). In groups, students determine the facts and the Constitutional issues, and discuss the case. After group reporting and whole class discussion, the facts and Constitutional issues in the case are clarified, and the term prior restraint is defined. Nine students sign up as Supreme Court justices. It is suggested that the names of the current court are used instead of student names, to add credibility and interest. Two students volunteer to represent each side. These four students will do additional research in preparing their briefs. (In fairness to these students, their roles could be assigned prior to the unit.) These students will know the Supreme Court decision, and are cautioned not to reveal it to the rest of the class.

Activity 2
Two class periods

Lawyers for the plaintiff Times present arguments. Departing from actual practice, it is advisable not to allow questioning by the justices until after the briefs are presented. A half hour is allowed for presentation of briefs and questioning. The teacher, (and the rest of the class), can grade the quality of the oral presentations of the lawyers and questioning by justices, and the ability of the Chief Justice to follow proper order.

Activity 3
One class period

The Supreme Court deliberates. The entire class listens to their comments. Each justice, following seniority, is prompted by the Chief Justice to discuss the case without indicating how he/she will vote. At the conclusion, voting takes place, starting with the most junior member (Ruth Bader Ginsburg, if the current court is used).

Activity 4
Students are given the real Supreme Court decision. A comparison is made with the student court decision (including concurring and dissenting opinions), and a discussion is held contrasting historical context. Place the following quote from Justice Hugo L. Black (original court) on the board to stimulate discussion: The First Amendment protected the press so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the people. In revealing the workings of government that led to the Vietnam War, he said newspapers nobly did precisely that which the Founders hoped and trusted they would do. (Anthony Lewis, Abroad at Home; Bare the Secrets). The following issues are then discussed:

  1. The Pentagon Papers was a history of the Vietnam War. How is that different from the actions of the press in current coverage of war?
  2. Given current technology, can prior restraint ever be effective?
  3. If the public has access to visual accounts of a war in progress, how might that affect American support?
  4. What measures might the government use to prevent coverage?
  5. If challenged, how do you think the Supreme Court would react?

Students will each write an essay addressing the following two questions:

  1. Under what circumstances should governmental secrets be kept from the press and the public?
  2. What are the dangers of keeping information secret?


  • Apple, Jr., R.W., "Twenty-five Years Later: Lessons from the Pentagon Papers," The New York Times June 23, 1996, section 4, p.5.
  • Bill of Rights in Action Winter, 1988. Los Angeles, California: Constitutional Rights Foundation.
  • Bok, Sissela, "Secrets." Random House, Inc., New York, 1989, Ch. 13, pp 191-210.
  • Lewis, Anthony, "Abroad at Home; ‘Bare The Secrets’ " The New York Times July 7, 1996, p. A31.
  • Neuman, Johanna, Television on the War in Vietnam, in "Lights, Camera, War: Is Media Technology Driving International Politics": (New York: St. Martin’s Press) 1996, pp 169-183.
  • Reston, James, "The Times and National Security," (New York: Random House, Inc.) pp 331-341.
  • "The Guide to American Law: Everyone’s Legal Encyclopedia." Chicago: American Bar Association.

Jeanne Doremus’s lesson plan, "The Legacy of the Pentagon Papers" was published in The Media and Democracy Curriculum Compendium 1999, Barrett and Greyser editors, published by Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass., p. 230.

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