New York Times Co. v. Sullivan

New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964), was a landmark decision of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that the freedom of speech protections in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution restrict the ability of American public officials to sue for defamation.[1][2] Specifically, it held that if a plaintiff in a defamation lawsuit is a public official or person running for public office, not only must he or she prove the normal elements of defamation—publication of a false defamatory statement to a third party—he or she must also prove that the statement was made with "actual malice", meaning that the defendant either knew the statement was false or recklessly disregarded whether or not it was true.[2][3]

The New York Times Co. v. Sullivan
Seal of the United States Supreme Court
Argued January 6, 1964
Decided March 9, 1964
Full case nameThe New York Times Company v. L. B. Sullivan
Citations376 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
Case history
PriorJudgment for plaintiff, Circuit Court, Montgomery County, Alabama; motion for new trial denied, Circuit Court, Montgomery County; affirmed, 144 So. 2d 25 (Ala. 1962); cert. granted, 371 U.S. 946 (1963).
A newspaper cannot be held liable for making false defamatory statements about the official conduct of a public official unless the statements were made with actual malice.
Court membership
Chief Justice
Earl Warren
Associate Justices
Hugo Black · William O. Douglas
Tom C. Clark · John M. Harlan II
William J. Brennan Jr. · Potter Stewart
Byron White · Arthur Goldberg
Case opinions
MajorityBrennan, joined by Warren, Clark, Harlan, Stewart, White
ConcurrenceBlack, joined by Douglas
ConcurrenceGoldberg, joined by Douglas
Laws applied
U.S. Const. amends. I, XIV

The case began in 1960 after The New York Times published a full-page advertisement by supporters of Martin Luther King Jr. that criticized the police in Montgomery, Alabama, for their mistreatment of civil rights protesters.[2] However, the ad had several factual inaccuracies, such as the number of times King had been arrested during the protests, what song the protesters had sung, and whether or not students had been expelled for participating.[2] In response, Montgomery police commissioner L. B. Sullivan sued the Times in the local county court for defamation.[2] The judge ruled the advertisement's inaccuracies were defamatory per se, and the jury returned a verdict in favor of Sullivan and awarded him $500,000 in damages.[2] The Times appealed the verdict to the Supreme Court of Alabama, which affirmed it. It then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case and ordered certiorari.

In March 1964, the Court issued a unanimous 9–0 decision holding that the Alabama court's verdict violated the First Amendment.[1] The decision defended 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. Before this decision, there were nearly $300 million in libel actions from the southern states outstanding against news organizations, as part of a focused effort by southern officials to use defamation lawsuits as a means of preventing critical coverage of civil rights issues in out-of-state publications.[4][5] The Supreme Court's decision, and its adoption of the actual malice standard, reduced the financial exposure from potential defamation claims, and thus frustrated the efforts of public officials to use these claims to suppress political criticism.[4][5]

The Supreme Court has since extended the decision's higher legal standard for defamation to all "public figures", beginning with the 1967 case Curtis Publishing Co. v. Butts. These decisions have made it extremely difficult for a public figure to win a defamation lawsuit in the United States.


On March 29, 1960, The New York Times carried a full-page advertisement titled "Heed Their Rising Voices", paid for by the Committee to Defend Martin Luther King and the Struggle for Freedom in the South.[6][7] In the advertisement, the Committee 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. Referring to Alabama "official authority and police power", the advertisement stated: "They have arrested [King] seven times. ... ", whereas he had been arrested four times; and that "truckloads of police ... ringed the Alabama State College Campus" after the demonstration at the State Capitol, whereas the police had been "deployed near" the campus but had not actually "ringed" it and had not gone there in connection with the State Capitol demonstration.[1] Although the Montgomery Public Safety commissioner, L. B. Sullivan, was not named in the advertisement, Sullivan argued that the inaccurate criticism of actions by the police was defamatory to him as well because it was his duty to supervise the police department.[1]

The advertisement published in The New York Times on March 29, 1960, that led to Sullivan's defamation lawsuit.

Because Alabama law denied public officers recovery of punitive damages in a libel action on their official conduct unless they first made a written demand for a public retraction and the defendant failed or refused to comply, Sullivan sent such a request.[1] The Times did not publish a retraction in response to the demand. Instead, its lawyers wrote a letter[8] 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 African-American ministers mentioned in the ad: Ralph Abernathy, S.S. Seay, Sr., Fred Shuttlesworth, and Joseph Lowery.

The Times subsequently published 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 we had by that time learned more of the 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 languages in there referred to Mr. Sullivan."[1]

Sullivan secured a judgment for $500,000 in the Alabama state trial court. The state supreme court affirmed[9][10] on August 30, 1962, saying "The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution does not protect libelous publications". The Times appealed to the United States Supreme Court.[11][12]

Constitutional law scholar Herbert Wechsler successfully argued the case before the United States Supreme Court. Louis M. Loeb, a partner at the firm of Lord Day & Lord who served as chief counsel to the Times from 1948 to 1967,[13] was among the authors of the brief of the Times.


On March 9, 1964, the Supreme Court issued a unanimous 9–0 decision in favor of the Times that vacated the Alabama court's judgment and limited newspapers' liability for damages in defamation suits by public officials.

Opinion of the CourtEdit

Justice William J. Brennan Jr., the author of the Supreme Court's unanimous opinion

Justice William J. Brennan Jr. authored the Court's opinion, and all the justices joined it. The Court began by explaining that the First Amendment's protections had to be interpreted against the background of the United States' "profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials."[14] The Court said that criticism of government and public officials was at the core of American rights to freedom of speech and freedom of the press.[15] It observed that "erroneous statement is inevitable in free debate, and ... must be protected if the freedoms of expression are to have the breathing space that they need ... to survive".[16]

The Court analogized Alabama's libel law to the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts passed in 1798 during the presidency of John Adams.[17] It reasoned that a broad interpretation of libel laws that protected government officials from criticism would produce situations similar to those under the Alien and Sedition Acts, which had been historically criticized.[17] The Court said that the importance of safeguarding the "breathing space" afforded by the First Amendment's protections required giving constitutional protection to "erroneous statements honestly made".[17]

Because of the importance of free debate about public officials, the Court said that it was not enough that Alabama libel law—like most libel laws in the Anglo-American common law tradition—allowed defendants to use the truth of their defamatory statements as a defense.[15] Instead, the Court held that under U.S. law, any public official suing for defamation must prove that the defendant made the defamatory statement with "actual malice".

The constitutional guarantees require, we think, a federal rule that prohibits a public official from recovering damages for a defamatory falsehood relating to his official conduct unless he proves that the statement was made with "actual malice" – that is, with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.

— Sullivan, 376 U.S. at 279–80.[18]

The Court said that besides proving "actual malice", the First Amendment's protections also imposed two other limitations on libel laws. First, a public official seeking damages must prove that the defendant's defamatory statement was about the official individually, not about government policy generally. Second, unlike in traditional common law defamation lawsuits where the defendant had the burden to prove that his or her statement was true, in defamation suits involving American public officials the officials must prove that the defendant's statement was false.[17]

International comparisonsEdit

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[19] and it was also rejected in Canada in Hill v. Church of Scientology of Toronto[20] and more recently in Grant v. Torstar Corp.[21] In Australia, the outcome of the case was followed in Theophanous v. The Herald & Weekly Times Ltd,[22] but Theophanous was itself overruled by the High Court of Australia in Lange v Australian Broadcasting Corporation (1997) 189 CLR 520.

50th anniversaryEdit

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 not only as a ruling which "instantly changed libel law in the United States", but also as "the clearest and most forceful defense of press freedom in American history."[23] The board 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.[23]

In a 2015 TIME Magazine survey of over 50 law professors, both Owen Fiss (Yale) and Steven Schiffrin (Cornell) named New York Times v. Sullivan "the best Supreme Court decision since 1960," with Fiss noting that the decision helped cement "the free-speech traditions that have ensured the vibrancy of American democracy" and Schiffrin remarking that the case "overturned the censorial aspects of the law of libel and made it far easier in what’s left of our democracy for citizens—including the Fourth Estate—to criticize the powerful."[24]

Later developmentsEdit

Further developmentsEdit

In February 2019, the Supreme Court denied a petition brought by Katherine McKee, one of the women that accused Bill Cosby of sexual assault, which claimed that Cosby had leaked a letter that permanently damaged her reputation, and had sought civil action against Cosby on this matter. Lower courts rejected her case based on New York Times Co., stating that she "thrust herself to the forefront of a public controversy", making her a limited public figure and requiring the higher standard of malice to be demonstrated. The denial by the Supreme Court did not include a vote count, but Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the solitary opinion on the case, agreeing that denial was appropriate per New York Times Co., but stating that he believed that decision of New York Times Co. was made wrongly. Thomas wrote "If the Constitution does not require public figures to satisfy an actual-malice standard in state-law defamation suits, then neither should we".[25] The views of Thomas, a conservative, mirrored that of President Donald Trump, who had repeatedly called for the review of libel laws in the United States to give those defamed by others a "meaningful recourse in our courts".[25]

In March 2021, federal judge Laurence Silberman called on the Supreme Court to overturn New York Times v. Sullivan, stating that the New York Times and The Washington Post are "virtually Democratic Party broadsheets". Silberman's dissent also accused big tech companies of censoring conservatives and warned that "Democratic Party ideological control" of mainstream media may be a prelude to an "authoritarian or dictatorial regime" that constitutes "a threat to a viable democracy".[26][27]

Judge Silberman's dissent produced significant public discussion of Sullivan and potential reforms. Many conservative-leaning outlets endorsed Silberman's criticisms of Sullivan.[28] Most liberal-leaning outlets and several moderate conservatives condemned Silberman's decision for its tone and the substantive idea of loosening defamation standards.[29] However, some liberal scholars and a Harvard Law student writing in the Wall Street Journal embraced significant reforms to Sullivan.[30]

In the July 2021 denial of certiorari in Berisha v. Lawson, Justice Thomas reiterated his opposition to New York Times v. Sullivan. Justice Neil Gorsuch also questioned the usefulness of NYT v. Sullivan when applied to today's media and social media.[31]

See alsoEdit



  1. ^ a b c d e f g h New York Times v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964)
  2. ^ a b c d e f Chemerinsky (2019), §, p. 1140.
  3. ^ Buescher, John. "The 4th Estate as the 4th Branch.", accessed 2 September 2011.
  4. ^ a b Elena Kagan, "A Libel Story: Sullivan Then and Now" (reviewing Anthony Lewis, Make No Law: The Sullivan Case and the First Amendment (1991)), 18 Law and Social Inquiry 197 (1993).
  5. ^ a b Rick Schmitt, "Window to the Past: New York Times Co. v. Sullivan", Washington Lawyer, October 2014.
  6. ^ Heed Their Rising Voices Advertisement, courtesy of the National Archives
  7. ^ "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.
  8. ^ Lewis, Anthony (20 April 2011). Make No Law: The Sullivan Case and the First Amendment. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. p. 12. ISBN 978-0-307-78782-8.
  9. ^ New York Times Company v. Sullivan, 144 SO.2D 25 (Supreme Court of Alabama August 30, 1962).
  10. ^ New York Times Company v. Sullivan, 273 Ala. 656 (Supreme Court of Alabama August 30, 1962).
  11. ^ Carson, Clayborne; Armstrong, Tenisha; Carson, Susan; Cook, Erin; Englander, Susan (eds.). "New York Times Co. v Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254". Martin Luther King Jr., Encyclopedia. Stanford University: The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute. Retrieved December 14, 2018.
  12. ^ "New York Times Co. v. Sullivan". Oyez.
  13. ^ "Who's Who in America" 1978-1979
  14. ^ Nowak & Rotunda (2012), § 20.33(i), quoting Sullivan, 376 U.S. at 270.
  15. ^ a b Chemerinsky (2019), §, p. 1140.
  16. ^ Chemerinsky (2019), §, p. 1140, quoting Sullivan, 376 U.S. at 271–72 (internal quotation marks omitted).
  17. ^ a b c d Nowak & Rotunda (2012), § 20.33(ii).
  18. ^ Quoted in part in Chemerinsky (2019), §, p. 1141
  19. ^ Derbyshire County Council v. Times Newspapers Ltd [1993] AC 534
  20. ^ Hill v. Church of Scientology of Toronto [1995] 2 SCR 1130
  21. ^ Grant v. Torstar Corp. [2009] 2009 SCC 61
  22. ^ Theophanous v. The Herald & Weekly Times Ltd (1994) 182 CLR 104
  23. ^ a b The New York Times Editorial Board (9 March 2014). "The Uninhibited Press, 50 Years Later". The New York Times. Archived from the original on January 10, 2021. 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.
  24. ^ Sachs, Andrea. "The Best Supreme Court Decisions Since 1960". TIME Magazine. Archived from the original on February 10, 2021. Retrieved February 10, 2021.
  25. ^ a b Williams, Pete (February 19, 2019). "Justice Clarence Thomas criticizes landmark Supreme Court press freedom ruling". NBC News. Retrieved February 19, 2019.
  26. ^[bare URL]
  27. ^$file/19-7132-1890626.pdf[bare URL]
  28. ^[bare URL]
  29. ^ "Opinion | Judge Laurence Silberman's attack on Times v. Sullivan is shocking — and totally incorrect". The Washington Post. 2021-03-25. Retrieved 2021-11-20.
  30. ^[bare URL]
  31. ^ "Berisha v. Lawson" (PDF).

Works citedEdit

  • Chemerinsky, Erwin (2019). Constitutional Law: Principles and Policies (6th ed.). New York: Wolters Kluwer. ISBN 978-1-4548-4947-6.
  • Nowak, John E.; Rotunda, Ronald D. (2012). Treatise on Constitutional Law: Substance and Procedure (5th ed.). Eagan, Minnesota: West. OCLC 798148265.

Further readingEdit

External linksEdit