Sullivan, the Court got beyond the ancient legal tradition in libel of finding “malice” (in the sense of ill will) on the part of a publisher who published something held to be defamatory. Instead, Justice Brennan created a new constitutional standard to be overcome before a public official won a libel case. To win, the public official would have to prove that the offending words were false, and that the publisher knew (or should have known) that they were false. Justice Brennan’s words:9
The Constitutional guarantees require, we think, a federal rule that prohibits a public official from recovering damages for a defamatory falsehood relating to his official conduct unless he proves 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.
Consider some of the changes made in libel laws by New York Times v. Sullivan:
For the first time, advertising was given some First Amendment protection.
It was established that unintentional falsity no longer would remove constitutional protection from discussion of public officials.
The tough “actual malice” standard of proof took away public officials’ ability to harass the press through libel suits unless they could prove that the publisher knew something was false or published with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.
3 New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, at 261 (1964).
4See Dwight L. Teeter, Jr. and Bill Loving, Law of Mass Communications, 13th ed. (New York: Foundation Press, 2012), pp. 284-286.
5 Valentine v. Chrestensen, 316 U.S. 52 (1942).
6 New York Times v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 266 (1964).
7 Quoted in Teeter and Loving, op. cit., p. 288.
8 New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 273 (1964).
9 Ibid., pp. 279-280.