NEW YORK TIMES CO. V. SULLIVAN

NEW YORK TIMES CO. V. SULLIVAN

NEW YORK TIMES CO. V. SULLIVAN

NEW YORK TIMES CO. V. SULLIVAN

A landmark U.S. Supreme Court case, New York
Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 84 S. Ct. 710,
11 L. Ed. 2d 686 (1964), extended the FIRST
AMENDMENT’s guarantee of free speech to LIBEL
cases brought by public officials. The Supreme
Court sought to encourage public debate by
changing the rules involving libel that had previ-
ously been the province of state law and state
courts.

New York Times v. Sullivan grew out of
events occurring during the 1960s CIVIL RIGHTS
MOVEMENT in Alabama. In 1960, MARTIN
LUTHER KING JR. , and other CIVIL RIGHTS lead-
ers conducted protests against SEGREGATION in
Montgomery, Alabama. Their efforts met fierce
resistance from Montgomery public officials.
Civil rights leaders placed a full-page advertise-
ment in the New York Times seeking contribu-
tions for civil rights causes in the South. Signed
by sixty-four prominent leaders in public affairs,
religion, trade unions, and the performing arts,
the advertisement, entitled “Heed Their Rising
Voices,” stated that thousands of southern
African American students were engaging in
nonviolent demonstrations in positive affirma-
tion of the right to live in human dignity. The ad
went on to charge that these demonstrations
had been met with a “wave of terror” by state
and local governments. Alleged events that
backed up this charge were described, but no
particular public official was named.

L.B. Sullivan, the Montgomery city commis-
sioner responsible for supervising the city police
department, filed a libel suit against four African
American clergyman and the New York Times in
Alabama state court. Sullivan alleged that the
advertisement implicitly libeled him. Libel is a
civil TORT and consists of injuring someone’s
reputation by reporting falsehoods about that
person.

At trial Sullivan proved that the advertise-
ment contained a number of minor inaccuracies
about described incidents. The jury had to
determine whether the statements in the adver-
tisement were “of and concerning” Commis-
sioner Sullivan. The judge instructed the jury
that under Alabama law, if the statements were
found libelous, falsity and malice were pre-
sumed, and damages could be awarded without
direct proof of financial loss. The jury con-
cluded that the statements did concern Sullivan
and awarded him $500,000 for injuries to his
reputation and profession.

The U.S. Supreme Court reversed, holding
that the RULE OF LAW applied by Alabama vio-
lated the First Amendment. Justice WILLIAM J.
BRENNAN JR. , in his majority opinion, placed the
legal issues in the context of “a profound national
commitment to the principle that debate on pub-
lic issues should be uninhibited, robust, and
wide-open, and that it may well include vehe-
ment, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp
attacks on government and public officials.”
Brennan maintained that erroneous statements
are inevitable in free debate and must be pro-
tected if freedom of expression is to have the
“breathing space” it needs to survive.
The advertisement was squarely a public
expression and protest, and fell within constitu-
tional protection. Neither the allegedly defama-
tory content of the ad, nor the falsity of some of
its factual statements, nor the NEGLIGENCE of
anyone in preparing or publishing it forfeited
this protection. Brennan dismissed the idea that
courts were free to conclude that libelous state-
ments were made “of and concerning” a partic-
ular person when the statements on their face
did not make even an oblique reference to the
individual. Brennan stated that there is “no legal
alchemy” by which a court constitutionally can
establish that “an otherwise impersonal attack
on governmental operations was a libel of an
official responsible for those operations.”
Brennan then set out the rule that reshaped
libel law. A public official could recover in a libel
action only if and when a court found that the
libelous statement about the official was made
with “ ‘actual malice’—that is, with knowledge
that it was false or with reckless disregard of
whether it was false or not.” As long as the press
has an “absence of malice,” public officials are
barred from recovering damages for the publica-
tion of false statements about them.

In separate concurring opinions, Justices
HUGO L. BLACK and WILLIAM O. DOUGLAS dif-
fered with Justice Brennan over whether the
press should ever be held liable in DEFAMATION
of public officials. They concluded that the First
Amendment provided an absolute IMMUNITY
for criticism of the way public officials do their
public duty. Anything less than absolute immu-
nity encourages “deadly danger” to a free press
by state libel laws that harass, punish, and ulti-
mately destroy critics.

In the years since New York Times, some crit-
ics have argued that Black and Douglas were
right. The “reckless disregard” requirement has
allowed highly intrusive inquiries into the repor-
torial and editorial processes of the mass media.
In addition, the “chilling effect” of libel suits has
not been diminished because of the case. If a jury
finds reckless disregard, it can award enormous
damage awards against the press.
Other critics of the decision believe it affords
too much protection to the press. Public officials
unfairly libeled by the press rarely file libel suits
because of the difficulty of proving actual mal-
ice. This prevents them from establishing in a

Posted in Supreme Court Cases | Comments Off