At the height of the Revolutionary War, before our nascent nation’s Constitution had even been drafted, 10 American sailors sent a petition to maritime authorities revealing that the first commander in chief of the U.S. Navy had tortured British prisoners of war. The Continental Congress dismissed the Navy chief, who filed a libel suit against the men. Two were imprisoned. Congress granted them relief once more, then passed the first U.S. laws safeguarding the rights of whistleblowers. Whistleblowers could be compensated and protected from retaliation.
“America’s public servants were obligated, Congress maintained, to report wrongdoing in their ranks whenever they encountered it,” Middlebury College professor Allison Stanger writes in an essay in the new book “National Security, Leaks and Freedom of the Press: The Pentagon Papers Fifty Years On.”
The Pentagon Papers: The very name evokes a noble brawl over the public interest. Nixon. Watergate. The truth-tellers prevail. Government censors are banned from the land. Yet another Oscar nomination for Meryl Streep.
The 1971 Supreme Court decision in New York Times Co. v. United States (and the affiliated cases involving The Washington Post and others) remains a rallying cry for journalists and for those in favor of checking excess in governmental secrecy.
The legacy of the episode, as captured in this magisterial volume of essays, edited by Columbia University President Lee C. Bollinger and University of Chicago law professor Geoffrey R. Stone, is hazier. Each is an eminent First Amendment legal scholar, well-versed in the tensions between national security and public accountability.
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