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New York Times Co. v. Sullivan

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

Issue: The right to criticize public officials and government was at stake here. Background: over the centuries, there have been court cases involving both seditious libel and civil libel.

Seditious libel is a centuries-old crime with origins in English law. That crime meant you could not rigorously criticize government or government officials, including the English royal family. There have been episodes of seditious libel in the United States, including during wartime (especially World War I, 1917-1918). Civil libel, on the other hand, seeks monetary damages (payments) for injury to reputation. Although seditious libel had been largely abandoned in the United States by the last two-thirds of the 20th Century, civil libel became a major threat to American news media during the nation’s civil rights struggles in the 1960s, threatening—through huge libel suit judgments against the press--to turn the nation’s news media from watchdogs to lapdogs.

Facts: A full-page editorial advertisement captioned “Heed Their Rising Voices” was published by The New York Times in 1963, telling of the struggles of African-American students to attend Alabama State College in Montgomery. The advertisement complained about the “wave of terror” that confronted the students, and told of violence against Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. as he led the civil rights movement. Excerpts from this advertisement, paid for and signed by civil rights organizations and listing the names of four Alabama ministers, follow:

Heed Their Rising Voices

As the whole world knows by now, thousands of Southern Negro students are engaged in wide-spread, non-violent demonstrations in positive affirmation of the right to live in human dignity as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

In their effort to uphold these guarantees they are being met by an unprecedented wave of terror by those who would deny and negate that document which the whole world looks upon as setting the pattern for modern freedom. * * *

In Montgomery, Alabama, after students sang “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” on the State Capitol steps, their leaders were expelled from school, and truck-loads of police armed with shot-guns and tear-gas ringed the Alabama State College Campus. When the entire student body protested to state authorities by refusing to re-register, their dining hall was padlocked in an attempt to starve them into submission. * * *

Again and again the Southern violators have answered Dr. King’s protests with intimidation and violence. They have bombed his home almost killing his wife and child. They have assaulted his person. They have arrested him seven times—for “speeding,” “loitering” and similar “offenses.” And now they have charged him with “perjury” – a felony

under which they would imprison him for ten years. Obviously, their real purpose is to remove him physically as the leader to whom the students and millions of others—look for guidance and support, and thereby to intimidate all leaders who may rise in the South. * * * The defense of Martin Luther King, spiritual leader of the student sit-in movement, clearly, therefore, is an integral part of the total struggle for freedom in the South.

L.B. Sullivan was commissioner of Public Affairs for the City of Montgomery, one of three elected commissioners. He supervised the police and fire departments and the department of cemetery. Even though Sullivan was not named in the advertisement, he sued for libel in because he supervised the Montgomery County Police Department, people would see him as the person responsible for police action at the Alabama State College campus. Also, he declared that by association, people would tie him to the actions against Rev. King.

As required by Alabama libel law, Commissioner Sullivan wrote a letter to the Times, demanding a retraction. The ads included errors of fact, which could have been caught and stopped by the Times’s advertising department. The Times, however, responded that it could not see how the statements in the ad reflected on him. In his letter, Sullivan pointed to errors in the ad which blamed him for actions taken by Montgomery police. [See excerpts from the “Heed Their Rising Voices” ad, above.] Those actions included padlocking the college dining hall, and seven arrests of Rev. King. But the dining hall was not padlocked and three of the arrests of Dr. King occurred before Sullivan was elected commissioner. Sullivan wrote similar letters to the four black ministers from Alabama whose names appeared at the bottom of the ad, but they did not reply. The believed, because their names were placed on the ad without their consent, that they had not published anything.3 Sullivan sued for libel in an Alabama court, and a jury awarded him $500,000. The New York Times appealed, but the Alabama Supreme Court reaffirmed the award. Governor Richard Patterson also sued the Times for libel, and also won a $500,000 award.4

[Note: Legal procedure often is as pivotal as substantive law in court cases. As the saying goes, your rights are only as good as your legal remedies. The libel suits by Sullivan and Patterson took place in Alabama courts because the people who placed the advertisement in The New York Times added the names of the four African-American ministers: all were Alabamians. If the libel suits had been limited to the newspaper, a New York corporation, and Alabama plaintiffs Sullivan and Patterson, the case might have been tried in federal court, a court presumably less open to local prejudices. Because there is not federal law of libel, the Supreme Court of the United States dealt with Alabama libel law. Although libel laws vary from state to state, one basic element of any libel suit anywhere is identification. One internal rule of the U.S. Supreme Court is that it reaches constitutional issues only as a last resort, when a case cannot be decided on any other basis. So the U.S. Supreme Court could have simply overturned the libel judgment in favor of Sullivan, saying that under the law of Alabama, Sullivan had not been identified. After all, his name was not used, and he was one of hundreds involved in the police and fire departments of Montgomery County. It is evident that the Supreme Court agreed to hear this appeal because it saw great issues at stake, nothing less than freedom of the press and the right to criticize public officials.]

Justice William J. Brennan, Jr., was assigned to write the opinion for the Court. To decide this appeal, he faced numerous issues of law and of fact.


*Advertisements Given Some First Amendment Protection in 1964: Because Sullivan’s libel suit sought damages for an advertisement, his attorney argued that under the precedent of a Supreme Court decision in Valentine v. Chrestensen (1942), there was no First Amendment protection for advertising.5 Sullivan’s lawyers argued that factual errors in the advertisement destroyed any possible First Amendment protection for the newspaper. The Sullivan decision found that constitutional protection still existed. Justice Brennan wrote that the advertisement had social and informational value: The advertisement, Brennan declared6

* * * communicated information, expressed opinion, recited grievances, protested claimed abuses, and sought financial support on behalf of a movement whose existence and objectives are matters of highest public concern * * * That the Times was paid for publishing the advertisement is as immaterial in this connection as is the fact that newspapers and books are sold * * * Any other conclusion would discourage newspapers from carrying “editorial advertisements” of this type, and so might shut off an important outlet for the promulgation of information and ideas by persons who do not themselves have access to publishing facilities . . . . The effect would be to shackle the First Amendment.

The Court said the question about the advertisement was whether it forfeited constitutional protection “. . .by the falsity of some of its factual statements and by its alleged defamation. . .” of L.B. Sullivan.

*Unintentional Falsity Does Not Destroy First Amendment Protection: Clearly realizing the importance of this decision to the future of free discussion in the United States, Justice Brennan wrote that the falsity of some statements in the ad did not destroy First Amendment protection for the clergymen and for the Times. Sullivan’s lawyers relied on the Alabama rule of law saying that inaccuracies, even those published in good faith, would destroy the defense of truth. But Justice Brennan concluded for the Court that “. . .erroneous statement is inevitable in free debate, and * * * it must be protected if the freedoms of expression are to have the ‘breathing space’ that they need to survive * * *.”7

Nationwide Impact of New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964)

The Sullivan decision ended Alabama’s rule that a libel defendant had no legal defense unless he could convince a jury that his statements were completely true. Because Alabama libel law was similar to that in many other states, the U.S. Supreme Court’s Sullivan decision had a nation-wide effect. The Court declared, “Allowance of the defense of truth, with the burden of proving it on the defendant, does not mean that only false speech will be deterred. The Court further declared its support for free discussion of public officials: “Criticism of their official conduct does not lose its constitutional protection merely because it is effective and hence diminishes their official reputations.”8

The “Sullivan Rule:” The Constitutional Defense of Actual Malice

In 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.