New York Times Co. v. Sullivan

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New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S.
254, was a landmark United States Supreme Court case that established the
actual malice standard, which has to be met before press reports about public
officials can be considered to be defamation and libel; and hence allowed
free reporting of the civil rights campaigns in the southern United States.
It is one of the key decisions supporting the freedom of the press. The
actual malice standard requires that the plaintiff in a defamation or libel case
prove that the publisher of the statement in question knew that the
statement was false or acted in reckless disregard of its truth or falsity.
Because of the extremely high burden of proof on the plaintiff, and the
difficulty of proving the defendant’s knowledge and intentions, such
cases—when they involve public figures—rarely prevail.
Before this decision, there were nearly US $300 million in libel actions
outstanding against news organizations from the Southern states, and it had
caused many publications to exercise great caution when reporting on civil
rights, for fear that they might be held accountable for libel. After The New
York Times prevailed in this case, news organizations were free to report the
widespread disorder and civil rights infringements. The Times maintained that
the case against it was brought to intimidate news organizations and
prevent them from reporting illegal actions of public employees in the South
as they attempted to continue to support segregation.
Background of the case On March 29, 1960, The New York Times
carried a full-page advertisement titled “Heed Their Rising Voices”, which
solicited funds to defend Martin Luther King, Jr. against an Alabama perjury
indictment. The advertisement described actions against civil rights protesters,
some of them inaccurately, some of which involved the police force of Montgomery,
Alabama. Discrepancies were generally minor. Referring to the Alabama State
Police, the advertisement stated: “They have arrested [King] seven times…”
However, at that point he had been arrested four times. Although
African-American students staged a demonstration on the State Capitol
steps, they sang the National Anthem and not My Country, ‘Tis of Thee. Although
the Montgomery Public Safety commissioner, L. B. Sullivan, was not
named in the advertisement, the inaccurate criticism of actions by the
police was considered defamatory to Sullivan as well, due to his duty to
supervise the police department. Alabama law denied a public officer
recovery of punitive damages in a libel action concerning their official conduct
unless they first made a written demand for a public retraction and the
defendant failed or refused to comply, so Sullivan sent such a request. The
Times did not publish a retraction in response to the demand. Instead it wrote
a letter stating, among other things, that “we … are somewhat puzzled as to
how you think the statements in any way reflect on you,” and “you might, if you
desire, let us know in what respect you claim that the statements in the
advertisement reflect on you”. Sullivan did not respond but instead filed a
libel suit a few days later. He also sued four African American ministers
mentioned in the ad, specifically Ralph Abernathy, S.S. Seay, Sr., Fred
Shuttlesworth, and Joseph Lowery. Sullivan won $500,000 in an Alabama
court judgment. The Times did subsequently publish a
retraction of the advertisement upon the demand of Governor John Patterson of
Alabama, who alleged the publication charged him with “grave misconduct and
… improper actions and omissions as Governor of Alabama and ex officio
chairman of the State Board of Education of Alabama.” When asked to explain why
there had been a retraction for the Governor but not for Sullivan, the
Secretary of the Times testified: “We did that because we didn’t want anything
that was published by the Times to be a reflection on the State of Alabama and
the Governor was, as far as we could see, the embodiment of the State of
Alabama and the proper representative of the state and, furthermore, we had by
that time learned more of the actual facts which the ad purported to recite
and, finally, the ad did refer to the action of the state authorities and the
Board of Education presumably of which the Governor is the ex officio
chairman….”. However, the Secretary also testified he did not think that
“any of the language in there referred to Mr. Sullivan.”
Louis M. Loeb, a partner at the firm of Lord Day & Lord served as chief counsel
to the Times from 1948 to 1967, successfully argued this case before the
United States Supreme Court. The court’s ruling held that news publications could
not be sued for libel by public figures unless the plaintiffs were able to
establish actual malice in the false reporting of a news story. The case,
which had been brought against the Times by Montgomery, Alabama public safety
commissioner L.B. Sullivan, allowed newspapers to report on the widespread
chaos and police abuse accompanying the Civil Rights Movement. Loeb later called
the libel cases he argued for The New York Times “the heaviest responsibility
I’ve ever had since I began practicing law.” [1]
The court’s decision The Court ruled for The Times, 9–0. The
rule of law applied by the Alabama courts was found constitutionally
deficient for failure to provide safeguards for freedom of speech and of
the press, as required by the First and Fourteenth Amendment. The decision
further held that even with the proper safeguards, the evidence presented in
this case was insufficient to support a judgment for Sullivan. In sum the court
ruled that “the First Amendment protects the publication of all statements, even
false ones, about the conduct of public officials except when statements are
made with actual malice.”=Actual malice=
The Court held that a public official suing for defamation must prove that the
statement in question was made with actual malice. In this context, the
phrase refers to knowledge or reckless lack of investigation, rather than its
ordinary meaning of malicious intent. In his concurring opinion, Justice Black
explained that “‘[m]alice,’ even as defined by the Court, is an elusive,
abstract concept, hard to prove and hard to disprove. The requirement that malice
be proved provides at best an evanescent protection for the right critically to
discuss public affairs and certainly does not measure up to the sturdy
safeguard embodied in the First Amendment.”
The term “malice” was not newly invented for the case; it came from existing
libel law. In many jurisdictions, including Alabama, proof of “actual
malice” was required in order for punitive damages to be awarded, or for
other increased penalties. Since a writer’s malicious intent is hard to
prove, proof that the writer knowingly published a falsehood was generally
accepted as proof of malice, under the assumption that only a person with ill
intent would knowingly publish something false. In Hoeppner v. Dunkirk Printing
Co., 254 N.Y. 95, similarly, the court said: “The plaintiff alleges that this
criticism of him and of his work was not fair and was not honest; it was
published with actual malice, ill will and spite. If he establishes this
allegation, he has made out a cause of action. No comment or criticism,
otherwise libelous, is fair or just comment on a matter of public interest
if it be made through actual ill will and malice.”
In New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, the Supreme Court adopted the term “actual
malice,” giving it constitutional significance.
International comparisons The rule that somebody alleging
defamation should have to prove untruth, rather than that the defendant should
have to prove the truth of a statement, stood as a departure from the previous
common law. In England, the development was specifically rejected in Derbyshire
County Council v. Times Newspapers Ltd and it was also rejected in Canada in
Hill v. Church of Scientology of Toronto and more recently in Grant v. Torstar
Corp.. In Australia, the outcome of the case was followed in Theophanous v. The
Herald & Weekly Times Ltd, but Theophanous was itself overruled by the
High Court of Australia in Lange v Australian Broadcasting Corporation 189
CLR 520. 50th anniversary
In 2014, on the 50th anniversary of the ruling, The New York Times released an
editorial in which it stated the background of the case, laid out the
rationale for the Supreme Court decision, critically reflected on the
state of freedom of the press 50 years after the ruling and compared the state
of freedom of the press in the United States with other nations. The editorial
board of The New York Times heralded the Sullivan decision as “the clearest and
most forceful defense of press freedom in American history” and added:
The ruling was revolutionary, because the court for the first time rejected
virtually any attempt to squelch criticism of public officials—even if
false—as antithetical to “the central meaning of the First Amendment.” Today,
our understanding of freedom of the press comes in large part from the
Sullivan case. Its core observations and principles remain unchallenged, even as
the Internet has turned everyone into a worldwide publisher—capable of calling
public officials instantly to account for their actions, and also of ruining
reputations with the click of a mouse. Later developments
Curtis Publishing Co. v. Butts, 388 U.S. 130 held that public figures who are not
public officials may still sue news organizations if they disseminate
information about them which is recklessly gathered and unchecked.
Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323: Actual malice not necessary for
defamation of private person if negligence is present.
Hustler Magazine v. Falwell, 485 U.S. 46: Extending standard to intentional
infliction of emotional distress. Milkovich v. Lorain Journal Co., 497
U.S. 1: Existing law is sufficient to protect free speech without recognizing
opinion privilege against libel claims. See also
New York Times Co. v. Tasini New York Times Co. v. United States
List of United States Supreme Court cases, volume 376
Notes Further reading
Burnett, Nicholas F.. “New York Times v. Sullivan”. In Parker, Richard A.. Free
Speech on Trial: Communication Perspectives on Landmark Supreme Court
Decisions. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press. pp. 116–129. ISBN
0-8173-1301-X. Lewis, Anthony. Make No Law: The
Sullivan Case and the First Amendment. New York: Random House. ISBN
0-394-58774-X. Fireside, Harvey. New York Times V.
Sullivan: Affirming Freedom of the Press. Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow
Publishers, Inc. ISBN 978-0-7660-1085-7. Lithwick, Dahlia. “Target Practice:
Justice Scalia sets his sights on New York Times Co. v. Sullivan”. Slate.
Retrieved 2013-03-25. Watson, John C.. “Times v. Sullivan:
Landmark or Land Mine on the Road to Ethical Journalism?”. Journal of Mass
Media Ethics 17: 3–19. doi:10.1207/S15327728JMME1701_02.
External links Text of New York Times Co. v. Sullivan,
376 U.S. 254 is available from: Findlaw Justia U of Wisconsin BC
OYEZ – New York Times v. Sullivan Booknotes interview with Anthony Lewis
on Make No Law: The Sullivan Case and the First Amendment, October 20, 1991.

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