Theory: The “why” behind the “what”

In New York Times v. United States, also known as the Pentagon Papers case, the New York Times and Washington Post published the then-classified document they legally obtained called “The Pentagon Papers.” The material that was publicized detailed the brutalities of the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War, information that the Nixon administration endeavored to keep hidden from the American people. President Richard Nixon tried to censor what newspapers printed by claiming executive order and attempting to get an injunction against both papers. Censorship is defined as “an attempt to cut ideas off prior to expression,” and the United States Supreme Court, ruled that the government does not have the power to censor what can and cannot be said, so long as the information is true and doesn’t have the intention of sedition or incitement. Ultimately, the Burger Court asserted that the Nixon administration’s effort to censor “classified information” from being publicly printed and seen was a violation of the First Amendment.

As a theorist, Alexander Meiklejohn is one of the foremost voices to be listened to regarding First Amendment philosophy and practice. Meiklejohn believed in the power of a pure democracy, and stressed that within that democracy, as its citizens are the rulers, the citizens must have all necessary information so as to make informed judgments for self-governance. By restricting the flow of information to the public via the freedom of press, Nixon manipulated the electorate. According to Meiklejohn this is a terrifying possibility, as “democracy will not be true to its essential ideal if those in power are able to manipulate the electorate by withholding information and stifling criticism.”

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