Legal Trivia Question: Largest Arrest in U.S. History

Just as doctors need patients, lawyers need clients.  One can surmise that local criminal defense lawyers got plenty of business during the largest mass arrest in U.S. history.  How many people were arrested and where did it occur?

  1. 140 in Peoria, Illinois
  2. 1500 in Boston, Massachusetts
  3. 12,000 in Washington, D.C.
  4. 17,500 in Los Angeles, California

ANSWER: In May 1971, more than 500,000 anti-Vietnam War protesters descended on Washington, D.C. with the intention of shutting down the federal government by blocking the streets.  As of that date, 45,000 American soldiers had died in Vietnam and more than 250,000 troops were still stationed there.  At least 12,000 protesters were arrested from May 3 through May 5, including Daniel Ellsberg.

Ellsberg, a former Defense Department analyst, had helped compile a report on the history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam from 1945–68 for Defense Secretary Robert McNamara.  The study, which became known as the “Pentagon Papers,” exposed controversial, previously hidden truths about the scope and purpose of U.S. participation in the Vietnam War.  Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times, which began publishing them in installments.

The Nixon administration sued for an injunction, which resulted in a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case, New York Times Co. v. United States, 403 U.S. 713 (1971), where the Court ruled in favor of the newspaper by a 6-3 vote, a major victory in troubled times for the First Amendment right to free speech and a free press.  Publication of the Pentagon Papers helped turn the tide of public opinion against the war.  It took until June 2011, forty years to the day from the original publication of the Pentagon Papers by the New York Times, before the U.S. government officially declassified and released the papers.

The answer, therefore, is C.

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Andrew Jay McClurg is a law professor whose teaching and research interests include tort law, products liability, legal education, privacy law and firearms policy. He holds the Herbert Herff Chair of Excellence in Law at the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law.
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