New York Times Co. v. Sullivan was a case brought before the United States Supreme Court in 1964. It is the most important case related to libel law the Court has decided on. This case outlined the criteria for a media entity to be sued for libel by a public figure. In other words, it deals with freedom of the press, one of the civil liberties mentioned in the First Amendment of the United States’ Bill of Rights.

The Case

On March 29, 1960, a full-page advertisement appeared in the New York Times titled “Heed Their Rising Voices”. The ad attempted to gain support for the civil rights movement in the South by recounting some of the struggles of those involved, and mentioned police action taken in Montgomery, Alabama against protesters. The ad’s writers were a little overzealous in their condemnations, however, and there were some incorrect statements in the ad’s third and sixth paragraphs. L.B. Sullivan was the elected chief of police in Montgomery. He brought suit against the Times, claiming that the ad’s false statements about the actions of the police force reflected poorly on him. The judge in Alabama instructed the jury to treat the statements as “libelous per se”, despite the fact that Sullivan’s name appeared nowhere in the ad. The lower court and the Alabama State Supreme Court both found in favor of Sullivan, awarding compensatory damages of half a million dollars. The case was then appealed, and went to the United States Supreme Court.

The Court’s Decision

The court realized that their decision in this case would affect all speech against the government. The ad contained only minor factual errors, and it seemed wrong for its writers to be found guilty of libel more for speaking against the establishment than for saying harmful and untrue things. The Court held for the defendant in a 9-0 decision. Justice William Brennan wrote the court’s majority opinion, in which he stated that in cases of libel involving public officials or figures, actual malice had to be involved in the allegedly libelous statements. He defined actual malice as a statement, “…made with knowledge of its falsity or with reckless disregard of whether it was true or false.” This was a huge step up from existing standards, which only required people to prove that the statement was false, damaging, and the publishers were negligent in printing it. In a concurring opinion, Justice Hugo Black, who was quite the constitutional absolutist, argued that libel laws as a whole were unconstitutional restrictions on speech. I mention this because Black was a funny guy in this respect. He was fond of saying things related to the First Amendment like, “I read no law abridging to mean no law abridging.” He also argued against obscenity laws and wouldn’t even show up to the Court’s movie-screening day, when they decided on whether or not some movies were obscene, before Miller v. California left that sort of thing up to local authorities. There was one other concurring opinion, written by Justice Arthur Goldberg, similar in content to Justice Black’s.

Why is this case important?

New York Times Co. v. Sullivan allows our press much more freedom to speak against the government. Without this ability, it would be difficult for them to fulfill their capacity as a watchdog organization. Tabloids would have a hard time turning a profit if they were subject to looser libel laws. Anything said in a published forum critical of the government would be subject to intense scrutiny, and found libelous if there was the slightest error. So celebrate your rights. Write something like, “George W. Bush is controlled by Big Oil,” or “The Democrats want to turn America into a welfare state.”

Supreme Court documents related to this case, such as the case syllabus and majority opinion, which are public documents.
The Justice Black quote is taken from my U.S. Government textbook, Government in America: People, Politics, and Policy, Tenth Edition, by George C. Edwards III, Martin P. Wattenberg, and Robert L. Lineberry.

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