Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
New York Times Co. v. Sullivan
|New York Times Co. v. Sullivan|
Supreme Court of the United States
| Argued January 6, 1964|
Decided March 9, 1964
|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.|
|U.S. Const. amend. I, VII|
New York Times Company v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964), was a United States Supreme Court case which established the actual malice standard before press reports could be considered to be defamation and libel; 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 publisher knows the statement is false or acts in reckless disregard of the truth.
Before this decision there were nearly US$300 million in libel actions outstanding against news organizations from the Southern states and these had caused many publications to exercise great caution when reporting on civil rights, for fear that they may be held liable for libel. After the 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
On March 29, 1960, the New York Times carried a full-page advertisement entitled "Heed Their Rising Voices", which solicited funds for civil rights activities in the South. The advertisement described actions against civil rights protesters, some of them inaccurately, some of which involved the police force of Montgomery, Alabama. Commissioner L.B. Sullivan, whose duties included supervision of the police department, wasn't named but argued that his position as a Commissioner there meant that the inaccurate criticism of the actions of the police were defamation against him.
Alabama law denied a public officer recovery of punitive damages in a libel action brought on account of a publication concerning their official conduct unless they first makes a written demand for a public retraction and the defendant fails or refuses to comply, so Sullivan sent such a request. The Times did not publish a retraction in response to the demand. Instead it wrote a letter 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". Sullivan didn't respond but instead filed this suit a few days later. Sullivan won $500,000 in an Alabama court judgment.
The Times did, however, subsequently publish a retraction of the advertisement upon the demand of Governor John Patterson of Alabama, who asserted that 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." 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 ...." On the other hand, he testified that he did not think that "any of the language in there referred to Mr. Sullivan" .
The Court's decision
The rule of law applied by the Alabama courts was found constitutionally deficient for failure to provide the safeguards for freedom of speech and of the press that are required by the First and Fourteenth Amendments in a libel action brought by a public official against critics of his official conduct. The decision further held that under the proper safeguards the evidence presented in this case is constitutionally insufficient to support the judgment for Sullivan.
Many people have seen the term Actual Malice as puzzling, since the standard spelled out in the decision refers to knowledge or reckless lack of investigation, not to malicious intent. This term was not newly invented for this case, but was a term from existing libel law. In many jurisdictions, including Alabama (where the case arose), proof of "actual malice" was required in order for punitive damages to be awarded, or for other increased penalties. Since proof of the writer's malicious intentions is hard to provide, proof that the writer knowingly published a falsehood was generally accepted as proof of malice, under the assumption that only a malicious person would knowingly publish a falsehood. In this case the Supreme Court adopted this term and gave it constitutional significance, at the same time defining it in terms of the proof which have previously been usual. To a person ignorant of this history, the term seems to contradict its definition, to find malice where there may well be none, and to ignore cases where malice, in the everyday sense of the term is present.
- Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323 (1974): opinion isn't libel, actual malice not necessary for defamation of private person if negligence is present
- Hustler Magazine v. Falwell, 485 U.S. 46 (1988): extending standard to intentional infliction of emotional distress
- Make No Law : The Sullivan Case and the First Amendment by Anthony Lewis A book-length history of this case.
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