New York Times Co. v. Sullivan

views updated May 09 2018


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).


Freedom of Speech; Freedom of the Press; Libel and Slander; New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (Appendix, Milestone Case).

New York Times v. Sullivan

views updated Jun 11 2018


NEW YORK TIMES V. SULLIVAN, 376 U.S. 254 (1964). Prior to New York Times Company v. Sullivan, libelous speech—speech that defames or slanders—was regarded as a form of personal assault unprotected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Courts assumed that libelous speech injured, and merely "more speech" was an inadequate remedy, since the truth rarely catches the lie. Thus, in Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, 315 U.S. 568 (1942), the Supreme Court ruled that libel was outside the scope of First Amendment protection because it was "no essential part in the exposition of ideas, " and in Beauharnais v. Illinois, 343 U.S. 250 (1952), the Court concluded that libelous statements regarding a group were also unprotected.

In Times v. Sullivan, a watershed case in the history of the law of libel and a free press, a unanimous Supreme Court concluded that "libel can claim no talismanic immunity from constitutional limitations. It must be measured by standards that satisfy the First Amendment." Thus, for the first time since the adoption of the Constitution, the Supreme Court granted the press constitutional protection when sued for damages by public officials because of criticism relating to their official conduct. In Times v. Sullivan, L. B. Sullivan, a police commissioner of Montgomery, Alabama, sued the New York Times and four African American clergymen because of statements contained in a full-page fund-raising advertisement printed in the Times. The advertisement, which did not mention Sullivan by name, contained charges, some inaccurate, of police brutality and harassment aimed at civil rights protesters on the Alabama State College campus in 1960. Similar to many states, Alabama made a publisher strictly liable for defamatory falsehoods, and the state recognized no privilege for good-faith mistakes of fact. The jury granted Sullivan a $500,000 damage award which the Alabama Supreme Court affirmed. Although the outcome was in accord with Alabama law, many interpreted it to mean that the South was prepared to use the state law of libel to punish and stifle the civil rights movement.

In reversing the judgment, the Supreme Court stated that there existed a "profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, " and that such debate may well include "sharp attacks on government and public officials." The Court observed that erroneous statements are inevitable in a free debate and that they must be protected if a free press is to have the "breathing space" it requires to survive. The Court noted that although the constitutionality of the Sedition Act of 1798, which imposed criminal penalties upon those who criticized the government or public officials, was never tested in court, "the attack upon its validity has carried the day in the court of history." Because civil damage awards may be as inhibiting of free expression as the criminal sanction, the "central meaning" of the First Amendment requires that the amendment limit the potential devastating reach of a civil libel judgment. Accordingly, the Court ruled that a public official seeking a damage judgment because of a libelous statement critical of his official conduct could only prevail by proving, through clear and convincing evidence, "that the statement was made with 'actual malice'—that is, with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not."

The Supreme Court's decision in Times v. Sullivan has sparked many debates that still continue over its meaning and application. The Court's "actual malice" standard defies sound summary except for emphasizing that the term "actual malice" as used by the Court should not be confused with the concept of common-law malice that requires evidence of ill will or bias. Subsequent judicial decisions have parsed the meaning of who is a public official, what constitutes official as opposed to private conduct, who is a public figure, and to what extent the underlying meaning of Times v. Sullivan undermines a person's right to keep personal information private.

It is difficult to gauge, and perhaps difficult to exaggerate, the impact of Times v. Sullivan on protecting the mass media from damages arising out of defamation claims. Many criticize this development and point to mass-media abuses that allegedly needlessly injure individuals, erode civil discourse, and deter individuals from entering public life out of fear of having their reputations tarnished. Others applaud the development as essential to a vigorous and robust public discourse that strengthens the democratic process by providing the governed with critical information about the governors and their policies.


Epstein, Richard. "Was New York Times v. Sullivan Wrong?" 53 University of Chicago Law Review 782 (1986).

Lewis, Anthony. Make No Law: The Sullivan Case and the First Amendment. New York: Random House, 1991.


See alsoLibel ; Mass Media ; New York Times .

New York Times v. Sullivan

views updated Jun 08 2018


Opinion of the Supreme Court of Alabama, August 30, 1962 . . . . .355

Brief to the U.S. Supreme Court

Brief for the Petitioner . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .376

"Heed Their Rising Voices" . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .412

Briefs to the U.S. Supreme Court

Brief for Respondent . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .415

Brief for the Petitioners . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .441

Brief for Respondent . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .465

Opinion of the Supreme Court, March 9, 1964 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .476


Freedoms of Speech and Press


In this section, the reader is invited to study the court opinions and briefs* that shaped a major facet of First Amendment law. As you read the following pages, you may wish to consider these issues:

  • What were the inaccuracies upon which Sullivan's claims of libel were based?
  • What about the advertisement made Sullivan believe it was directed at him?
  • How did the descriptions of the issues before the Court, and of their significance, differ as presented by the different parties?
  • What facts and legal principles did the Alabama Supreme Court rely on for its decision, and how was the U.S. Supreme Court's approach different?
  • What sorts of misstatements about a government official do you think would be permissible, and impermissible, under this case?

*The Court heard the cases between Sullivan and the Times, and Sullivan and the four clergymen, together. Both sets of briefs are included.


New York Times v. Sullivan, handed down in the midst of the civil rights movement, changed the inquiry for libel actions, strengthening the freedoms of speech and press when directed at government behavior. L. B. Sullivan, a city commissioner in Montgomery, Alabama, sued the Times and four black clergymen over an advertisement placed by the Committee to Defend Martin Luther King and the Struggle for Freedom in the South. The full page ad, which described abuses that students and civil rights activists had suffered at the hands of police and state authorities in various southern cities, contained several inaccuracies. Though the inaccuracies were minor, the Supreme Court of Alabama upheld a judgment of $500,000 against the defendants. In a unanimous 90 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed, holding that public officials cannot recover damages for false statements regarding their official conduct unless they can prove actual malicethat is, that the defendant or defendants knew the statements were false or made them with reckless disregard as to whether they were true or false. The decision freed the press and others to comment on government conduct by reducing fears of enormous damage awards based on minor inaccuracies.

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New York Times Company v Sullivan