New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964)

L.B. Sullivan, a Montgomery, Alabama city commissioner, sued the New York Times, claiming that he had been libeled by statements contained in an advertisement that appeared in the March 29, 1960 issue of the Times. The advertisement,which appealed for funds to support the civil rights movement, said that ‘‘thousands of Southern Negro students’’ were engaged in ‘‘non-violent demonstrations in positive affirmation of the right to live in human dignity as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution’’ but were encountering a ‘‘wave of terror’’ from ‘‘those who would deny ... that document.’’ Several paragraphs described the ‘‘wave of terror’’; two of these paragraphs referred to actions taken by the police in Montgomery, Alabama, and they formed the basis of Sullivan’s complaint. He claimed that since he was the city commissioner who supervised the Montgomery Police Department, references to actions taken by the police accused him of contributing to the alleged ‘‘wave of terror.’’

Sullivan’s case went to trial; the jury found for Sullivan, awarding him $500,000 in damages. The New York Times appealed to the Alabama Supreme Court, which upheld the verdict, and then to the U.S. Supreme Court. The issue before the Court was whether the law applied by the trial court violated the First Amendment. Under Alabama law, a publication was libelous per se if the words used tended to injure someone ‘‘in his reputation’’; if the person was a public official like Sullivan, this standard was met if the words were such as to injure him ‘‘in his public office.’’ The jury had to find that the words at issue concerned Sullivan, but since he was a public official his position justified their finding that his reputation was damaged by statements reflecting on the agency he directed, that is, the Montgomery Police. Once Sullivan established libel per se, the Times’s only defense was to persuade the jury that the statements in the advertisement were ‘‘true in all their particulars,’’ which was not the case.

The Supreme Court held that Alabama’s law violated the First Amendment:

The constitutional guarantees require ... a federal rule that prohibits a public official from recovering damages for a defamatory falsehood relating to his official conduct unless he proves that the statement was made with ‘‘actual malice’’—that is, with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.

In arriving at this result, the Court noted the nation’s ‘‘profound commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open,’’ and found that criticism of public officials is an essential part of this commitment, even when the criticism contains factual error. It explained that a rule compelling critics of official conduct to guarantee the truth of all their assertions ‘‘on pain of libel judgments virtually unlimited in amount’’ would lead to ‘‘self-censorship’’ that would inhibit public debate on essential issues.

SUSAN W. BRENNER

References and Further Reading

  • Rosenberg, Norman L. Protecting the Best Men: An Interpretative History of the Law of Libel. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986.
  • Rothenberg, Elliot C. The Taming of the Press. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1999.

Cases and Statutes Cited

New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 273 Ala. 656, 144 So.2d 25 (Alabama Supreme Court 1962), reversed by New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964)

See also Bill of Rights: Structure; Content-Based Regulation of Speech; Content-Neutral Regulation of Speech; Freedom of Speech and Press: Nineteenth Century; Freedom of Speech and Press under the Constitution: Early History (1791–1917); Freedom of Speech: Modern Period (1917–Present); Freedom of the Press: Modern Period (1917–Present); Philosophy and Theory of Freedom of Expression; Self-Fulfillment Theory of Free Speech; State Courts; Theories of Free Speech Protection

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