New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964)
This lesson focuses on the 1964 landmark freedom of the press case New York Times v. Sullivan. The Court held that the First Amendment protects newspapers even when they print false statements, as long as the newspapers did not act with “actual malice.”
It was 1960 and the Civil Rights Movement was gaining strength. Civil rights leaders ran a full-page ad in the New York Times to raise funds to help civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King, Jr. Sixty well-known Americans signed it. The ad described what it called “ an unprecedented wave of terror” of police actions against peaceful demonstrators in Montgomery, Alabama. What it described was mostly accurate, but some of the charges in the ad were not true. For example, the ad said that police “ringed” a college campus where protestors were, but this charge was exaggerated. The ad also contained the false statement: “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.”
L.B. Sullivan served as commissioner of public affairs in Montgomery. He sued the New York Times for libel (printing something they knew was false and would cause harm). The ad did not mention Sullivan’s name. But Sullivan claimed that the ad implied his responsibility for the actions of the police. He said that the ad damaged his reputation in the community. In the Alabama court, Sullivan won his case and the New York Times was ordered to pay $500,000 in damages.
The Times appealed the decision to the United States Supreme Court. The newspaper argued that it had no intention of hurting L.B. Sullivan. The newspaper had no reason to believe that the advertisement included false statements, so it did not check their accuracy. The Times argued that if a newspaper had to check the accuracy of every criticism of every public official, a free press would be severely limited.
In a unanimous decision, the United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of the New York Times. In order to prove libel, a “public official” must show that the newspaper acted “with ‘actual malice’–that is, with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard” for truth. The Court asserted America’s “profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open.” Free and open debate about the conduct of public officials, the Court reasoned, was more important than occasional, honest factual errors that might hurt or damage officials’ reputations.
- Why did L. B. Sullivan sue the New York Times?
- How did the Court rule?
- What was the Court’s reasoning? Do you agree with the Court?
- In his concurring opinion, Justice Hugo Black wrote, “I doubt that a country can live in freedom where its people can be made to suffer physically or financially for criticizing their government, its actions, or its officials…An unconditional right to say what one pleases about public affairs is what I consider to be the minimum guarantee of the First Amendment.” How did Justice Black come to the same conclusion as the majority, but for a different reason? With which opinion do you agree?
- Sullivan was one of three people in charge of police in Montgomery Alabama. Though he was not named in the advertisement, he argued that the false statements it contained about police had damaged his reputation. He sued the New York Times for libel.
- The Court ruled against Sullivan and in favor of the New York Times.
The Court reasoned that free and open debate about the conduct of public officials was more important than occasional, honest factual errors that might hurt or damage officials’ reputations. Some students will agree, citing the chilling effect it would have on a free press if newspapers had to check the veracity of all statements about public officials, even those in paid advertisements. Criticism of public officials (which can be almost impossible to prove or disprove) could be silenced as a result. Furthermore, the press freedom protected by the First Amendment was intended to protect citizens’ ability to discuss political matters and check government abuse. Others may disagree with the Court, saying that newspapers have a responsibility to check every fact they print. They may say that the First Amendment prevents prior restraint (government censorship before a newspaper is printed) but does not protect newspapers from being punished if they print falsehoods.
Black reasoned that the First Amendment absolutely protects all criticism of public officials, even those criticisms leveled with “actual malice.” Answers will vary.