Lesson Plan

Presidents v. Press: How the Pentagon Papers Leak Set Up First Amendment Showdowns


This 12-minute video clarifies the connections between the New York Times Co. v. United States Supreme Court case and the recent battles that Presidents Obama and Trump have fought to contain national security leaks. Focusing on the broader issues of freedom of the press in a democracy, the video helps students draw a line between the New York Times decision from 1971 and the ongoing disputes between the public’s right to know and the president’s right to secrecy. Useful for examining the First Amendment and the role of the press in a democratic society, the video also provides students with the historical context surrounding the Pentagon Papers, and the Vietnam War and consequences of the New York Times Court decision.

Content Advisory:

This video contains historical audio recordings of President Nixon and his staff using profanity.


  • The importance of the “Pentagon Papers” and how they led to a Supreme Court ruling in the New York Times Co. v. United States.
  • How the administration of Richard Nixon sought to suppress national security leaks.
  • How the actions of Presidents Obama and Trump have revived the debate over national security leaks and press freedom that emerged during the Nixon administration.
  • Social Studies
  • Civics & Government
  • U.S. History
  • Journalism
  • AP U.S. History
  • AP U.S. Government & Politics
  • Cultural and Social Change
  • Domestic Policies
  • Richard Nixon
  • Supreme Court
  • The First Amendment
  • The Media
  • Media Literacy
  • News Literacy
  • The Vietnam War
  • Watergate
  • 1970s America
  • The Postwar Era (1945-1980)
  • The Modern Era (1980-Present)
  • 21st Century
For Teachers

Introducing the Lesson

On June 13, 1971, The New York Times published the “Pentagon Papers” and raised a question that continues to be debated: what is the role of the free press?

The Times published the trove of secret documents because it believed the American public should know it had been misled and deceived by numerous presidents about escalating the Vietnam War.

President Richard M. Nixon thought the press had no right to publish any “secret documents” and filed suit to stop their publication, only to have the case wind up before the U.S. Supreme Court.

The court affirmed The Times’ right to publish.

But in the post-9/11 era, the boundaries of the government – and the press – are still being debated, as the digital age has made it easy to release reams of secret material with a keystroke.

The Obama Administration charged eight people with violating the Espionage Act for sharing government secrets with the press – more people than had been charged by all previous administrations combined.

No sooner did Donald Trump take office, then he began a continuing campaign to denigrate the mainstream press as purveyors of “fake news,” which seemed to be anything that did not agree with him.

That raised an old question: what is the role of the press? To only report the story sanctioned by the government – or to report out the unofficial story behind it?

Essential Questions

  • What dispute led to the New York Times Co. v. United States case in the Supreme Court? How was the case decided?
  • How did President Nixon respond to the Court case? What actions did he take against Daniel Ellsberg? What is the link between Nixon’s response to the New York Times case and Watergate?
  • How did President Obama seek to limit national security leaks? How did his actions affect journalists?
  • How has the “digital era” affected national security leaks?
  • How has President Trump responded to national security leaks?

Lesson Procedure

  • Why do you think the founders included freedom of the press in the first amendment? What role are journalists supposed to play in a functioning democracy?
  • Some people argue that governments in general, and American presidents in particular, simply don’t have the right to keep secrets. Should governments be allowed to keep secrets? Are there valid and invalid government secrets? What criteria can we use to decide what is a valid secret, and what is not?
  • In the video, Mathew Miller, who worked in Obama’s Department of Justice, argues that “if you look the other way, then you only encourage other people to leak national security secrets. You do have to show there are consequences for leaking information that could harm national security, and the only way to do that is to prosecute some of the individuals responsible for the most egregious leaks.” Do you agree with Miller? Why or why not?
  • Do you think it was appropriate for the Obama administration to seize the phone records of journalists? What are the costs and benefits of doing this? Do the costs outweigh the benefits? How does this affect the ability of journalists to do their jobs? Thinking about the long term, and the potential of further abuses, what are the dangers of prosecuting journalists? Are there long term dangers of NOT prosecuting journalists?
  • Is there a way to strike a balance between protecting freedom of the press, and protecting a president’s right to maintain national security secrets?

Additional Resources

Transcript for "Presidents v. Press: How the Pentagon Papers Leak Set Up First Amendment Showdowns"Retro Report 
“Amid Leaks, Recalling an Epic Battle Over Press Freedom in the Nixon Era”Retro Report 
Audio Interview: "Lies, Leaks, and Consequences, From Nixon to Trump"WNYC 

Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.

Analyze a complex set of ideas or sequences of events and explain how specific individuals, ideas, or events interact or develop over the course of a text.

Explain how the U.S. Constitution establishes a system of government that has powers, responsibilities, and limits that have changed over time and that are still contested.

Skill 2B: Explain how New York Times Co. v. United States relates to a foundational document.

Theme: Liberty and Order (LOR)

Questions? Tips? Concerns? Reach out to our Director of Education, David Olson: dolson@retroreport.com