The New York Times v. Sullivan

New York Times v. Sullivan (376 U.S. 254) was an important U.S. Supreme Court decision guaranteeing the freedom of speech and press in the United States. With origins in Alabama and the civil rights movement, the 1964 ruling maintained that the First Amendment, as applied through the Fourteenth Amendment, protects a publication from libel for making false statements about public officials, unless the accusations were made with actual malice.

On March 29, 1960, an organization known as the Committee to Defend Martin Luther King Jr. and the Struggle for Freedom in the South paid $4,800 for a full-page ten-paragraph advertisement entitled “Heed Their Rising Voices” in the New York Times. The advertisement described a “wave of terror” by local officials against black students in the South, who were trying to gain their constitutional rights. The message appealed for money to help the student movement and defend Martin Luther King Jr. against a charge of perjury in a Montgomery circuit court.

In 1962, Montgomery’s Commissioner of Public Affairs, Lester B. Sullivan, who supervised the police and fire departments, filed a lawsuit against the newspaper and four civil rights leaders who signed the advertisement: Ralph Abernathy, Solomon S. Seay Sr., Fred Shuttlesworth, and Joseph E. Lowery. Sullivan asserted that the use of the word police in the third paragraph of the ad personally libeled him, although it did not mention him by name.

Lester B. Sullivan, 1967 Because Alabama law required a written request for retraction before a public official could ask for punitive damages in a libel lawsuit, Sullivan asked the New York Times to publicly disclaim the contents of the advertisement. The newspaper declined because it did not see how the advertisement referred directly to Sullivan, who did not respond to the newspaper’s request to show how the message reflected on him personally. The New York Times did publish a retraction at the request of Alabama governor John Patterson. He claimed that the advertisement charged him personally with “grave misconduct:” and “improper actions and omissions” as governor of Alabama and ex-officio chair of the State Board of Education.

The advertisement contained a number of factual errors that would play an important part in the case. For example, the Montgomery police did not padlock the campus dining hall or ring the campus of Alabama State College with police as the advertisement stated. Nine Alabama State students were expelled by the State Board of Education for participating in a lunch counter sit-in at the Montgomery County courthouse rather than for a demonstration at the state capitol. There was some dispute whether the Montgomery police had ever assaulted Martin Luther King Jr. The bombing of King’s home took place before Sullivan became a city commissioner, and the Montgomery police were still trying to find the bombers. These and other factual errors formed the basis of the libel suit against The Times.

Although Alabama law stated that a person must be cited by name in a libel case, a public official could be libeled by words directed at the agency that he or she headed. After “libel per se” had been established, the defendant’s only recourse was to prove that the statements were true in every respect, but were not correct. General damages could be awarded without proof of financial loss, but a finding of actual malice was required to award punitive damages. Under Alabama law, belief in the truth of statements did not excuse libel, although it could be used as a factor when determining punitive damages. During the trial in Montgomery’s circuit court, six local residents testified that they believed the statements in paragraphs three and six referred to Sullivan personally. The jury awarded Sullivan $500,000, which was affirmed by the Alabama Supreme Court after an appeal by the newspaper (273 Ala. 656, 144 So.2d 25).

The New York Times appealed the verdict. In 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case and essentially determine how much power a state could exercise over the constitutional rights of free speech and a free press in libel suits involving public officials. On March 9, 1964, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the New York Times. It unanimously rejected the Alabama Supreme Court’s argument that the Fourteenth Amendment is concerned with state action rather than private action as well as its assertion that the constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech and press do not apply when the message is part of a paid commercial advertisement. Justice William J. Brennan, who wrote the majority opinion, stated that the decisions of Alabama’s courts were “constitutionally defective” because of the jury’s finding that the libelous statements were made “of and concerning” Sullivan. As the statements referred to the Montgomery police, rather than to Sullivan, the Alabama Supreme Court erred when it held that “the average person” knew that the police were under the control of the police commissioner, according to Brennan.

The U.S. Supreme Court also held that the inaccurate statements in the ad did not negate the constitutional right to free speech and press in favor of a claim of libel by a public official. It added that erroneous statements and exaggerations are common in public debate (for example, during a political campaign) and cannot be prevented without stifling free speech and freedom of the press. The Court, moreover, criticized Alabama’s civil libel law. Justice Brennan wrote that Alabama’s civil statute inhibited free speech because the jury award of $500,000 was far out of line with the penalties of Alabama’s criminal statute, which called for a $500 fine and six months in jail. An unreasonable fear of civil lawsuits by public officials would intimidate those who might criticize them, according to Brennan’s written opinion.

In addition, the Court rejected the idea that citizens or other entities criticizing public officials had to guarantee the absolute truth of their statements. A libel law that “dampens the vigor and limits the variety of public debate” violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments, the Court stated in its decision. Finally, the Supreme Court found that simply making misstatements did not rise to the constitutional level of “actual malice.”

The important legal significance of the Supreme Court’s decision in the Sullivan case was the establishment of the actual malice standard in determining libel in a press report. At the time of this decision, libel lawsuits claiming $300 million in damages had been filed against news organizations throughout the South. Establishing the standard of actual malice allowed the continued reporting of the civil rights movement without substantial fear of a civil lawsuit for libel and continues to allow the press to scrutinize and criticize government officials and their policies without fear of endless lawsuits for libel.

Further Reading

  • Lewis, Anthony. Make No Law: The Sullivan Case and the First Amendment. New York: Vintage Books, 1991.

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