William Glendon; Won Pentagon Papers Case

William R. Glendon with The Post's Katharine Graham in 1971.
William R. Glendon with The Post's Katharine Graham in 1971. (1971 Twp File Photo By Frank Johnston - 1971 Twp File Photo By Frank Johnston)
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By Martin Weil
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 7, 2009

William R. Glendon, 89, who successfully defended The Washington Post before the U.S. Supreme Court in the Pentagon Papers case, which is renowned in constitutional and journalism history, died Dec. 25 at a hospital in White Plains, N.Y. He lived in Scarsdale, N.Y.

A son, John Bayard Glendon, said Mr. Glendon died of multiple organ failure.

On June 26, 1971, Mr. Glendon, representing The Post, and Alexander Bickel, representing the New York Times, argued before the high court against an effort by the Nixon White House to prevent publication of a secret multi-volume history of America's involvement in Vietnam.

The newspapers' victory was regarded as a landmark assertion of the public's right to a free press and to be informed about the actions of government.

The case was also considered a milestone for The Post in its demonstration of the willingness of its publisher, Katharine Graham, to withstand severe pressure in carrying out the newspaper's responsibilities.

With the United States embroiled in Vietnam, and the nation in an uproar over the Pentagon Papers and their bearing on the background and conduct of the war, Mr. Glendon was addressing one of the fiercest controversies of the day. At the same time, he placed the matter in the broad context of American history and freedom.

"You are weighing here an abridgement of the First Amendment, the people's right to know," Mr. Glendon told the justices.

"That may be an abstraction," he said of the amendment, "but it is one that has made this country great for 200 years."

What the government sought was "prior restraint," the suppression of news or information before it was published, as opposed to legal action taken after publication. It was rare in American history. Mr. Glendon said the government needed to show that publication of the papers would "so prejudice the defense interests of the United States or result in such irreparable injury to the United States" as to justify prior restraint.

He contended that the government had made no such showing but offered only "conjecture and surmise."

Ultimately, the Supreme Court ruled 6 to 3 that the government had not met the "heavy burden" required to justify prior restraint.

William Richard Glendon was born May 1, 1919, in Medford, Mass., and grew up in Stoneham, Mass. He graduated in 1941 from the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., and served in the Navy during World War II as an officer on troop transports.

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