|The New York Times Co. v. Sullivan|
|Argued January 6, 1964
Decided March 9, 1964
|Full case name||The New York Times Company v. L. B. Sullivan|
|Citations||376 "U.S. 254 ("more)|
|Prior history||Judgment for plaintiff, Circuit Court, Montgomery County, Alabama; motion for new trial denied, Circuit Court, Montgomery County; affirmed, 144 So. 2d 25 (Ala. 1962); certiorari granted, 371 U.S. 946 (1963)|
|A newspaper can be held liable for libel for making false defamatory statements about the official conduct of a public official only if the statements were made with knowing or reckless disregard for the truth. Supreme Court of Alabama reversed.|
|Majority||Brennan, joined by Warren, Clark, Harlan, Stewart, White|
|Concurrence||Black, joined by Douglas|
|Concurrence||Goldberg, joined by Douglas|
|"U.S. Const. amends. I, "XIV|
New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, "376 "U.S. 254 (1964), 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 "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 case, if that person is a public official or "public figure, 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 claims by public figures rarely prevail.
Before this decision, there were nearly US $300,000,000 in libel actions from the Southern states outstanding against news organizations, as part of a focused effort by Southern officials to use defamation lawsuits as a means of preventing critical coverage of civil rights issues in out-of-state publications. The Supreme Court's decision, and its adoption of the actual malice standard, reduced the financial hazard from potential defamation claims, and thus countered the efforts by public officials to use these claims to suppress political criticism.
On March 29, 1960, "The New York Times carried a full-page advertisement titled ""Heed Their Rising Voices", paid for by the "Committee to Defend Martin Luther King and the Struggle for Freedom in the South." In the advertisement, the Committee 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. 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 Star-Spangled Banner, not "My Country, 'Tis of Thee. Although the Montgomery Public Safety commissioner, L. B. Sullivan, was not named in the advertisement, Sullivan argued that the inaccurate criticism of actions by the police was defamatory to him as well because it was his duty to supervise the police department.
Because Alabama law denied public officers recovery of punitive damages in a libel action on their official conduct unless they first made a written demand for a public retraction and the defendant failed or refused to comply, Sullivan sent such a request. The Times did not publish a retraction in response to the demand. Instead, its lawyers 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: "Ralph Abernathy, "S.S. Seay, Sr., "Fred Shuttlesworth, and "Joseph Lowery.
Sullivan won $500,000 in an Alabama court judgment.
The Times subsequently published 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."
Constitutional law scholar "Herbert Wechsler successfully argued the case before the United States Supreme Court. "Louis M. Loeb, a partner at the firm of "Lord Day & Lord who served as chief counsel to the Times from 1948 to 1967, was among the authors of the brief of the Times.
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."
The Supreme Court held that news publications could not be sued for libel by public officials unless the plaintiffs were able to establish actual malice in the false reporting of a news story. The Court ruled for The Times, 9–0. The rule of law applied by the Alabama courts was found constitutionally deficient for its 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 the 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 (with knowledge that they are false or in reckless disregard of their truth or falsity)."
The decision allowed newspapers more freedom to report on the widespread chaos and police abuse during the Civil Rights Movement.
The Court held that a public official suing for defamation must prove that the statement in question was made with "actual malice. That phrase refers to knowledge or reckless lack of investigation, rather than its ordinary meaning of malicious intent. In his concurring opinion, "Justice Black explained, "'Malice,' 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" came from existing libel law, rather than being invented in the case. In many jurisdictions, including Alabama, where the case arose, proof of "actual malice" (actual knowledge of falsity, or reckless disregard for the truth) was required for "punitive damages 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 (1930), 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. (p. 106)
In New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, the Supreme Court adopted the term "actual malice" and gave it constitutional significance.
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 (1997) 189 CLR 520.
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.
A version of this editorial appeared in print on March 9, 2014, on page SR10 of the New York edition with the headline: The Uninhibited Press, 50 Years Later.
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