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

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NEW YORK TIMES CO. v. SULLIVAN 376 U.S. 254 (1964)

martin luther king, jr. , was arrested in Alabama in 1960 on a perjury charge. In New York a group of entertainers and civil rights activists formed a committee to help finance King's defense. They placed a full-page advertisement in the New York Times appealing for contributions. The ad charged that King's arrest was part of a campaign to destroy King's leadership of the movement to integrate public facilities and encourage blacks in the South to vote. It asserted that "Southern violators" in Montgomery had expelled King's student followers from college, ringed the campus with armed police, padlocked the dining hall to starve them into submission, bombed King's home, assaulted his person, and arrested him seven times for speeding, loitering, and other dubious offenses.

L. B. Sullivan, a city commissioner of Montgomery, filed a libel action in state court against the Times and four black Alabama ministers whose names had appeared as endorsers of the ad. He claimed that because his duties included supervision of the Montgomery police, the allegations against the police defamed him personally.

Under the common law as it existed in Alabama and most other states, the Times had little chance of winning. Whether the statements referred to Sullivan was a fact issue; if the jury found that readers would identify him, it was immaterial that the ad did not name him. Because the statements reflected adversely on Sullivan's professional reputation they were "libelous per se"; that meant he need not prove that he actually had been harmed. The defense of truth was not available because the ad contained factual errors (for example, police had not "ringed the campus," though they had been deployed nearby; King had been arrested four times, not seven). A few states recognized a privilege for good faith errors in criticism of public officials, but Alabama was among the majority that did not.

The jury awarded Sullivan $500,000. In the Alabama Supreme Court, the Times argued such a judgment was inconsistent with freedom of the press, but that court merely repeated what the United States Supreme Court had often said: "The First Amendment of the United States Constitution does not protect libelous publications."

When the case reached the Supreme Court in 1964, it was one of eleven libel claims, totaling $5,600,000, pending against the Times in Alabama. It was obvious that libel suits were being used to discourage the press from supporting the civil rights movement in the South. The Times urged the Court to equate these uses of libel law with the discredited doctrine of seditious libel and to hold that criticism of public officials could never be actionable.

Only three Justices were willing to go that far. The majority adopted a more limited rule, holding that public officials could recover for defamatory falsehoods about their official conduct or fitness for office only if they could prove that the defendant had published with "actual malice." This was defined as "knowledge that [the statement] was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not." The Court further held that this element had to be established by "clear and convincing proof," and that, unlike most factual issues, it was subject to independent review by appellate courts. The Court then reviewed Sullivan's evidence and determined that it did not meet the new standard.

The decision was an important breakthrough, not only for the press and the civil rights movement but also in first amendment theory. Until then, vast areas of expression, including libel and commercial speech, had been categorically excluded from First Amendment protection. Also, the decision finally repudiated the darkest blot on freedom of expression in the history of the United States, the Sedition Act of 1798.

Over the next few years, the Court went out of its way to make the new rule effective. It defined "reckless disregard" narrowly (St. Amant v. Thompson, 1967). It extended the Sullivan rule to lesser public officials (Rosenblatt v. Baer, 1966), to candidates for public office (Monitor Patriot Co. v. Roy, 1971), to public figures (Associated Press v. Walker, 1967), and to criminal libel (Garrison v. Louisiana, 1964). After 1971 the Court retreated somewhat, declining to extend the Sullivan rule to private plaintiffs and permitting a de facto narrowing of the public figure category.

From its birth the rule has been criticized, by public officials and celebrities who believe it makes recovery too difficult, and by the news media, which argue that the rule still exposes them to long and expensive litigation, even though ultimately they usually win. The Court, however, has shown no inclination to revise the rule. In Bose Corp. v. Consumers Union (1984), the Court was invited to dilute it by abandoning independent appellate review of findings of "actual malice." The Court refused, holding such review essential "to preserve the precious liberties established and ordained by the Constitution."

David A. Anderson


Kalve, Harry, Jr. 1964 The New York Times Case: A Note on "The Central Meaning of the First Amendment." Supreme Court Review 1964:191–221.

Pierce, Samuel R., Jr. 1965 The Anatomy of an Historic Decision: New York Times Co. v. Sullivan. North Carolina Law Review 43:315–363.

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

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