New York Times Co. v. Sullivan

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The New York Times Co. v. Sullivan
Seal of the United States Supreme Court.svg
Argued January 6, 1964
Decided March 9, 1964
Full case name The New York Times Company v. L. B. Sullivan
Citations 376 U.S. 254 (more)
84 S. Ct. 710; 11 L. Ed. 2d 686; 1964 U.S. LEXIS 1655; 95 A.L.R.2d 1412; 1 Media L. Rep. 1527
Prior history Judgment for plaintiff, Circuit Court, Montgomery County, Alabama; motion for new trial denied, Circuit Court, Montgomery County; affirmed, 144 So. 2d 25 (Ala. 1962); certiorari granted, 371 U.S. 946 (1963)
Holding
The First Amendment, as applied through the Fourteenth, protected a newspaper from being sued for libel in state court for making false defamatory statements about the official conduct of a public official, because the statements were not made with knowing or reckless disregard for the truth. Supreme Court of Alabama reversed and remanded.
Court membership
Case opinions
Majority Brennan, joined by Warren, Clark, Harlan, Stewart, White
Concurrence Black, joined by Douglas
Concurrence Goldberg, joined by Douglas
Laws applied
U.S. Const. amends. I, XIV

New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964),[1] was a United States Supreme Court case that established the actual malice standard, which has to be met before press reports about public officials can be considered to be defamation and libel;[2] and hence allowed free reporting of the civil rights campaigns in the southern United States. It is one of the key decisions supporting the freedom of the press. The actual malice standard requires that the plaintiff in a defamation or libel case prove that the publisher of the statement in question knew that the statement was false or acted in reckless disregard of its truth or falsity. Because of the extremely high burden of proof on the plaintiff, and the difficulty of proving the defendant's knowledge and intentions, such cases—when they involve public figures—rarely prevail.

Before this decision, there were nearly US $300 million in libel actions outstanding against news organizations from the Southern states, and it had caused many publications to exercise great caution when reporting on civil rights, for fear that they might be held accountable for libel.[citation needed] After The New York Times prevailed in this case, news organizations were free to report the widespread disorder and civil rights infringements. The Times maintained that the case against it was brought to intimidate news organizations and prevent them from reporting illegal actions of public employees in the South as they attempted to continue to support segregation.

Background of the case[edit]

On March 29, 1960, The New York Times carried a full-page advertisement titled "Heed Their Rising Voices",[3][4] which solicited funds to defend Martin Luther King, Jr. against an Alabama perjury indictment. The advertisement described actions against civil rights protesters, some of them inaccurately, some of which involved the police force of Montgomery, Alabama. Discrepancies were generally minor.[citation needed] Referring to the Alabama State Police, the advertisement stated: "They have arrested [King] seven times..."[5] However, at that point he had been arrested four times.[5] Although Negro students staged a demonstration on the State Capitol steps, they sang the National Anthem and not "My Country,'Tis of Thee.[5] Although the Montgomery Public Safety commissioner, L. B. Sullivan, was not named in the advertisement, the inaccurate criticism of actions by the police was considered defamatory to Sullivan as well, due to his duty to supervise the police department.[5]

Alabama law denied a public officer recovery of punitive damages in a libel action concerning their official conduct unless they first made a written demand for a public retraction and the defendant failed or refused to comply, so Sullivan sent such a request.[1] The Times did not publish a retraction in response to the demand. Instead it wrote a letter[citation needed] stating, among other things, that "we ... are somewhat puzzled as to how you think the statements in any way reflect on you," and "you might, if you desire, let us know in what respect you claim that the statements in the advertisement reflect on you".[1] Sullivan did not respond but instead filed a libel suit a few days later. He also sued four black ministers mentioned in the ad, specifically Ralph Abernathy, S.S. Seay, Sr., Fred Shuttlesworth, and Joseph Lowery. Sullivan won $500,000 in an Alabama court judgment.[6]

The Times did subsequently publish a retraction of the advertisement upon the demand of Governor John Patterson of Alabama, who alleged the publication charged him with "grave misconduct and ... improper actions and omissions as Governor of Alabama and ex officio chairman of the State Board of Education of Alabama."[1] When asked to explain why there had been a retraction for the Governor but not for Sullivan, the Secretary of the Times testified: "We did that because we didn't want anything that was published by the Times to be a reflection on the State of Alabama and the Governor was, as far as we could see, the embodiment of the State of Alabama and the proper representative of the state and, furthermore, we had by that time learned more of the actual facts which the ad purported to recite and, finally, the ad did refer to the action of the state authorities and the Board of Education presumably of which the Governor is the ex officio chairman....". However, the Secretary also testified he did not think that "any of the language in there referred to Mr. Sullivan."[1]

The court's decision[edit]

The Court ruled for The Times, 9–0.[6] The rule of law applied by the Alabama courts was found constitutionally deficient for failure to provide safeguards for freedom of speech and of the press, as required by the First and Fourteenth Amendment. The decision further held that even with the proper safeguards, the evidence presented in this case was insufficient to support a judgment for Sullivan. In sum the court ruled that "the First Amendment protects the publication of all statements, even false ones, about the conduct of public officials except when statements are made with actual malice (with knowledge that they are false or in reckless disregard of their truth or falsity)."[7]

Actual malice[edit]

The Court held that a public official suing for defamation must prove that the statement in question was made with actual malice. In this context, the phrase refers to knowledge or reckless lack of investigation, rather than its ordinary meaning of malicious intent. In his concurring opinion, Justice Black explained that "'[m]alice,' even as defined by the Court, is an elusive, abstract concept, hard to prove and hard to disprove. The requirement that malice be proved provides at best an evanescent protection for the right critically to discuss public affairs and certainly does not measure up to the sturdy safeguard embodied in the First Amendment."

The term "malice" was not newly invented for the case; it came from existing libel law. In many jurisdictions, including Alabama (where the case arose), proof of "actual malice" (actual knowledge of falsity, or reckless disregard for the truth) was required in order for punitive damages to be awarded, or for other increased penalties. Since a writer's malicious intent is hard to prove, proof that the writer knowingly published a falsehood was generally accepted as proof of malice, under the assumption that only a person with ill intent would knowingly publish something false. In Hoeppner v. Dunkirk Printing Co., 254 N.Y. 95 (1930), similarly, the court said: "The plaintiff alleges that this criticism of him and of his work was not fair and was not honest; it was published with actual malice, ill will and spite. If he establishes this allegation, he has made out a cause of action. No comment or criticism, otherwise libelous, is fair or just comment on a matter of public interest if it be made through actual ill will and malice." (p. 106)

In New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, the Supreme Court adopted the term "actual malice," giving it constitutional significance.

International comparisons[edit]

The rule that somebody alleging defamation should have to prove untruth, rather than that the defendant should have to prove the truth of a statement, stood as a departure from the previous common law. In England, the development was specifically rejected in Derbyshire County Council v. Times Newspapers Ltd[8] and it was also rejected in Canada in Hill v. Church of Scientology of Toronto[9] and more recently in Grant v. Torstar Corp..[10] In Australia, the outcome of the case was followed in Theophanous v. The Herald & Weekly Times Ltd,[11] but Theophanous was itself overruled by the High Court of Australia in Lange v Australian Broadcasting Corporation (1997) 189 CLR 520.

50th anniversary[edit]

In 2014, on the 50th anniversary of the ruling, The New York Times released an editorial in which it stated the background of the case, laid out the rationale for the Supreme Court decision, critically reflected on the state of freedom of the press 50 years after the ruling and compared the state of freedom of the press in the United States with other nations. The editorial board of The New York Times heralded the Sullivan decision as "the clearest and most forceful defense of press freedom in American history"[12] and added:

The ruling was revolutionary, because the court for the first time rejected virtually any attempt to squelch criticism of public officials—even if false—as antithetical to “the central meaning of the First Amendment.” Today, our understanding of freedom of the press comes in large part from the Sullivan case. Its core observations and principles remain unchallenged, even as the Internet has turned everyone into a worldwide publisher—capable of calling public officials instantly to account for their actions, and also of ruining reputations with the click of a mouse.[12]

Later developments[edit]

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e New York Times v. Sullivan, United States Supreme Court, March 9, 1964 (376 U.S. 254).
  2. ^ Buescher, John. "The 4th Estate as the 4th Branch." Teachinghistory.org, accessed 2 September 2011.
  3. ^ Heed Their Rising Voices Advertisement, courtesy of the National Archives
  4. ^ "Advertisement “Heed Their Rising Voices,” New York Times, March 29, 1960 (National Archives Identifier 2641477)". National Archives-Atlanta, Records of District Courts of the United States. Retrieved 11 March 2014. 
  5. ^ a b c d "New York Times Co. v. Sullivan". 
  6. ^ a b New York Times v. Sullivan at Oyez.
  7. ^ "New York Times v. Sullivan". The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law. The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law. Retrieved 11 March 2014. 
  8. ^ Derbyshire County Council v. Times Newspapers Ltd [1993] AC 534
  9. ^ Hill v. Church of Scientology of Toronto [1995] 2 SCR 1130
  10. ^ Grant v. Torstar Corp. [2009] 2009 SCC 61
  11. ^ Theophanous v. The Herald & Weekly Times Ltd (1994) 182 CLR 104
  12. ^ a b The New York Times Editorial Board (9 March 2014). "The Uninhibited Press, 50 Years Later". The New York Times. Retrieved 11 March 2014. A version of this editorial appeared in print on March 9, 2014, on page SR10 of the New York edition with the headline: The Uninhibited Press, 50 Years Later. 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]