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New York Times Co. v. Sullivan

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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 previously 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 leaders conducted protests against segregation in Montgomery, Alabama. Their efforts met fierce resistance from Montgomery public officials. Civil rights leaders placed a full-page advertisement in the New York Times seeking contributions 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 affirmation 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 commissioner 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 advertisement contained a number of minor inaccuracies about described incidents. The jury had to determine whether the statements in the advertisement were "of and concerning" Commissioner Sullivan. The judge instructed the jury that under Alabama law, if the statements were found libelous, falsity and malice were presumed, and damages could be awarded without direct proof of financial loss. The jury concluded 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 violated 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 public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials." Brennan maintained that erroneous statements are inevitable in free debate and must be protected 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 constitutional protection. Neither the allegedly defamatory 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 statements were made "of and concerning" a particular 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 publication of false statements about them.

In separate concurring opinions, Justices Hugo L. Black and William O. Douglas differed 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 immunity encourages "deadly danger" to a free press by state libel laws that harass, punish, and ultimately destroy critics.

In the years since New York Times, some critics have argued that Black and Douglas were right. The "reckless disregard" requirement has allowed highly intrusive inquiries into the reportorial 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 malice. This prevents them from establishing in a court of law the falsity of the statements at issue.

Further Readings

Fireside, Harvey. 1999. New York Times v. Sullivan: Affirming Freedom of the Press. Springfield, N.J.: Enslow.

Kane, Thomas. 1999. "Malice, Lies, and Videotape: Revisiting New York Times v. Sullivan in the Modern Age of Political Campaigns." Rutgers Law Journal 30 (spring).

Whitten, Kristian D. 2002. "The Economics of Actual Malice: A Proposal for Legislative Change to the Rule of New York Times v. Sullivan." Cumberland Law Review 32 (spring).

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