Lessons learned from Daniel Ellsberg’s extraordinary risks still resonate in Newhouse classrooms

A man gestures while speaking during a lecture
Daniel Ellsberg speaks at a Tully Center for Free Speech event at the Newhouse School in 2011. (Photo courtesy of Tully Center for Free Speech)

In leaking the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times, Daniel Ellsberg took extraordinary risks to expose secret details of the United States’ strategy in the Vietnam War.

While Ellsberg faced scathing criticism and time in jail, history has proven the revelations worthy of his actions, said Roy Gutterman, director of the Tully Center for Free Speech at the Newhouse School and a professor of magazine, news and digital journalism. 

Ellsberg died Friday, his family announced in a letter released by a spokeswoman. He was 92.

“He was a truly historic figure who took significant risks to inform the American public about lies that dragged the country into the Vietnam War,” Gutterman said. “In some circles, he was a hero and in others a criminal.”

The lessons learned from that turbulent time in American history still resonate today in Newhouse classrooms.

“Every semester, our students learn about his actions when we study the landmark Pentagon Papers case, U.S. v. New York Times, which has become an important First Amendment precedent standing up against censorship and prior restraints,” Gutterman said.

Ellsberg disclosed that he was the source of the Pentagon Papers leak to the Times, which published the 7,000-page Defense Department study in a stunning series of reports in 1971.

Ellsberg was one of the first guest speakers at the Tully Center after Gutterman took over as director 13 years ago, speaking to an overflow crowd of more than 300 people at the Joyce Hergenhan Auditorium.

“Though Ellsberg’s act of civil disobedience and dissent happened more than 50 years ago, he has remained part of the discussion on whistleblowing, leaks, free flow of information and dissent,” Gutterman said. “He was truly one of a kind.”