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New York Times Co. v. Sullivan

New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964),[1] was a landmark 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 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, if that person is a public figure, 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 claims by public figures rarely prevail.

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)
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
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
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

Before this decision, there were nearly US $300,000,000 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. The Supreme Court's decision, and its adoption of the actual malice standard, reduced the financial hazard from potential defamation claims, and thus countered the efforts by public officials to use these claims to suppress political criticism.[3][4]



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".[5][6] 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 the Alabama State Police, the advertisement stated: "They have arrested [King] seven times..."[1] However, at that point he had been arrested four times.[1] Although African-American students staged a demonstration on the State Capitol steps, they sang the National Anthem and not My Country, 'Tis of Thee.[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, due to his duty to supervise the police department.[1]

Published in New York Times on March 29, 1960

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 its lawyers wrote a letter[7] 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, specifically Ralph Abernathy, S.S. Seay, Sr., Fred Shuttlesworth, and Joseph Lowery. Sullivan won $500,000 in an Alabama court judgment.[8]

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]

Constitutional law scholar Herbert Wechsler successfully argued this 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,[9] was among the authors of the Times' brief. Loeb later called the libel cases he argued for The New York Times "the heaviest responsibility I’ve ever had since I began practicing law." [10]

The Court's decisionEdit

The court's ruling held that news publications could not be sued for libel by public figures unless the plaintiffs were able to establish actual malice in the false reporting of a news story. The Court ruled for The Times, 9–0.[8] 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)."[11]

The ruling allowed newspapers to report more freely on the widespread chaos and police abuse accompanying the Civil Rights Movement.

Common Law MaliceEdit

The Court held that a public official suing for defamation must prove that the statement in question was made with actual malice. In this legal 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 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[12] and it was also rejected in Canada in Hill v. Church of Scientology of Toronto[13] and more recently in Grant v. Torstar Corp.[14] In Australia, the outcome of the case was followed in Theophanous v. The Herald & Weekly Times Ltd,[15] 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 as "the clearest and most forceful defense of press freedom in American history"[16] 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.[16]

Later developmentsEdit

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i New York Times v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964).
  2. ^ Buescher, John. "The 4th Estate as the 4th Branch.", accessed 2 September 2011.
  3. ^ 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).
  4. ^ Rick Schmitt, "Window to the Past: New York Times Co. v. Sullivan", Washington Lawyer, October 2014.
  5. ^ Heed Their Rising Voices Advertisement, courtesy of the National Archives
  6. ^ "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. 
  7. ^ Anthony Lewis (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. 
  8. ^ a b "New York Times Co. v. Sullivan". Oyez. 
  9. ^ "Who's Who in America" 1978-1979
  10. ^ "Louis M. Loeb, 80; Was Times Counsel". The New York Times. The New York Times. 17 March 1979. Retrieved 1 May 2017. 
  11. ^ "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. 
  12. ^ Derbyshire County Council v. Times Newspapers Ltd [1993] AC 534
  13. ^ Hill v. Church of Scientology of Toronto [1995] 2 SCR 1130
  14. ^ Grant v. Torstar Corp. [2009] 2009 SCC 61
  15. ^ Theophanous v. The Herald & Weekly Times Ltd (1994) 182 CLR 104
  16. ^ 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 readingEdit

External linksEdit