Atomic Secrecy

September 7, 1979

Report Outline
Progressive Hydrogen Bomb Case
Access to Atomic Data Since 1939
Disputed Need for Atomic Secrecy
Special Focus

Progressive Hydrogen Bomb Case

Court Order Blocking Magazine Report

On Sept. 13 the U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago is scheduled to hear what already is being spoken of as an “historic” and “landmark” case, placing First Amendment rights onto a collision course with federal atomic secrecy law. The case pits the U.S. government against The Progressive magazine, its editors, Erwin Knoll and Samuel Day Jr., and Howard Morland. Morland is the author of an article which Knoll and Day had planned to publish earlier in the year under the title “The H-Bomb Secret: How We Got It, Why We're Telling It.” The government learned of their intention to print the article in late February, and after failing to persuade them to voluntarily delete roughly 20 percent of the text and all of the diagrams showing how an H-bomb works, requested a court injunction against publication. Acting under the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, U.S. District Court Judge Robert W. Warren granted the government's request on March 26.

Warren said he agonized over the decision, which he characterized as “the first instance of prior restraint against a publication in this fashion in the history of this country.” But Warren said he had no choice but to decide in favor of the government because to rule otherwise “could pave the way for nuclear annihilation for us all.” Lawyers for The Progressive promptly appealed the decision, arguing that the sweeping secrecy provisions of the Atomic Energy Act are in violation of the First Amendment, which permits no law abridging freedom of the press.

The reactions of the press to The Progressive case have been highly ambivalent. Many newspapers editorialized in favor of the government, especially during the weeks immediately after the court injunction was imposed. The Washington Post, for example, called it “John Mitchell's dream case,” arguing that the Nixon administration would have liked to have gotten a case so likely to result in curtailed freedom of the press. In recent months, however, many publications have come around to support The Progressive. The board of the American Society of Newspaper Editors reluctantly voted 16–0 in early May to file a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the magazine. Friend-of-the-court briefs on behalf of The Progressive also have been filed by other publications and organizations, including The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, Scientific American, the Association of American Publishers, the National Association of Broadcasters, Playboy, and The New Republic.

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