New York Times Company v. Sullivan 1964

New York Times Company v. Sullivan 1964
Appellant: The New York Times Company
Appellee: L. B. Sullivan
Appellant's Claim: That when the Supreme Court of Alabama upheld a libel judgment against The New
York Times, it violated the newspaper's free speech and due process rights. Also, that an advertisement
published in the Times was not libelous.
Chief Lawyers for Appellant: Herbert Brownell, Thomas F. Daly, and Herbert Wechsler
Chief Lawyers for Appellee: Sam Rice Baker, M. Roland Nachman, Jr., and Robert E. Steiner III
Justices for the Court: Hugo Lafayette Black, William J. Brennan, Jr. (writing for the Court), Tom C.
Clark, William O. Douglas, Arthur Goldberg, John Marshall Harlan II, Potter Stewart, Earl Warren, and
Byron R. White
Justices Dissenting: None
Date of Decision: March 9, 1964
Decision: The Alabama courts' decisions were reversed.
Significance: The U.S. Supreme Court greatly expanded Constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech
and the press. It halted the rights of states to award damages in libel suits according to state laws.
On March 23, 1960, an organization called the "Committee to Defend Martin Luther King and the
Struggle for Freedom in the South" paid The New York Times to publish a full-page advertisement. The ad
called for public support and money to defend Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. who was struggling to
gain equal rights for African Americans. The ad ran in the March 29, 1960 edition of the Times with the
title "Heed Their Rising Voices" in large, bold print.
The ad criticized several southern areas, including the city of Montgomery, Alabama, for breaking up civil
rights demonstrations. In addition, the ad declared that "Southern violators of the Constitution" were
determined to destroy King and his civil rights movement. No person was mentioned by name. The
reference was to the entire South, not just to Montgomery or other specific cities.
Until 1964, each state used its own standards to determine what was considered libelous. This changed
after the decision in New York Times Company v. Sullivan. This landmark case established the criteria
that would be used nationwide when determining libel cases involving public officials.
The Court stated that "actual malice" must be shown by the publishers of alleged libelous materia, when
the falseness of the material is proven. This standard was later broadened by the Supreme Court to
include not only public officials, but also "public figures." This includes well-known individuals outside of
public office who receive media attention, such as athletes, writers, entertainers, and others who have
celebrity status.
Sullivan sues
Over 600,000 copies of the March 29, 1960 Times edition with the ad were printed. Only a couple
hundred went to Alabama subscribers. Montgomery City Commissioner L. B. Sullivan learned of the ad
through an editorial in a local newspaper. On April 19, 1960, an angry Sullivan sued the Times for libel
(an attack against a person's reputation) in the Circuit Court of Montgomery County, Alabama. He
claimed that the ad's reference to Montgomery and to "Southern violators of the Constitution" had the
effect of defaming him, meaning attacking and abusing his reputation. He demanded $500,000 in
compensation for damages.
On November 3, 1960, the Circuit Court found the Times guilty. The court awarded Sullivan the full
$500,000 for damages. The Alabama Supreme Court upheld the Circuit Court judgment on August 30,
1962. In its opinion, or written decision, the Alabama Supreme Court gave an extremely broad definition
of libel. The opinion stated that libel occurs when printed words: injure a person's reputation, profession,
trade, or business; accuse a person of a punishable offense; or bring public contempt upon a person.
Supreme Court protects the press
The Times's chief lawyers took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. On January 6, 1964, the two sides
appeared at a hearing before the Court in Washington, D.C. On March 9, 1964, the Supreme Court
unanimously (in total agreement) reversed the Alabama courts' decisions. The Court held, meaning
decided, that Alabama libel law violated the Times's First Amendment rights to freedom of the press.
The Court recognized what Alabama's own newspapers had written. The newspapers had reported that
Alabama's libel law was a powerful tool in the hands of anti-civil rights officials. The Court's decision
canceled out Alabama's overly general libel law so that it could no longer be used to threaten freedom of
the press.
Next, Justice William J. Brennan, Jr., stated that a new federal rule regarding libel law was needed. The
new rule stopped a public official from recovering damages for a defamatory falsehood, or lie, about his
official conduct unless he proved that the statement was made with actual malice (ill will).
Sullivan had not proven that the Times had acted with actual malice. What is actual malice? The Court
defined it as knowingly printing false information or printing it "with reckless disregard of whether it was
false or not."
Court broadens freedom of speech and press
In libel suits after New York Times Company v. Sullivan, the Court continued to expand the First
Amendment's protection of freedom of speech and press. The Court decided that for any "public figure" to
sue for libel
Montgomery was the site of a lot of civil rights activity, largely because of the events set off by Rosa Parks.
In 1955, Parks, then a forty-three-year-old seamstress working at a Montgomery department store, was on
her way home from work. At that time, Montgomery city buses were segregated. Whites sat up front,
blacks sat in the back. When Parks could not find a seat in the back, she sat in the middle of the bus. The
driver told her to move to make room for new white passengers. Parks refused—and was arrested.
Parks had been a civil rights activist for some time, working with the local chapter of the National
Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Now she worked with local civil rights
leaders who decided to use her case to end segregation on public transportation.
Parks's pastor, the twenty-seven-year-old Martin Luther King Jr., led a boycott of Montgomery city buses.
(A boycott is a refusal to buy, use, or sell a thing or service.) Local officials bitterly resisted the boycott.
Police arrested Parks a second time for refusing to pay her fine. They also arrested King. First on a drunkdriving charge, and then for conspiring (secretly planning) to organize an illegal boycott. The boycott of
the city buses lasted for over a year. It ended with the November 1956 Supreme Court decision against the
bus segregation. Montgomery continued to be a center of civil rights activity throughout the early 1960s
and win, she or he would have to prove "actual malice." Public figures include anyone widely known in the
community, such as athletes, writers, entertainers, and others with celebrity status. Also, the requirement
for actual malice protects anyone accused of libel, not just newspapers like the Times.
The Sullivan case was a huge advance for freedom of speech. It prevented genuine criticism from being
silenced by the threat of damaging and expensive libel lawsuits. Sullivan has not, however, become
a license for the newspapers to print anything that they want to print. Defendants who act
with ill will can receive severe penalties.