Robbins: New York Times v Sullivan is a seminal case in American law |

Robbins: New York Times v Sullivan is a seminal case in American law

During the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, the New York Times published a full-page advertisement by supporters of Martin Luther King Jr., entitled “Heed Their Rising Voices.”  The ad criticized the police in Montgomery, Alabama, for their mistreatment of civil rights protesters.  The ad also contained a number of 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. 

Although he was not named in the ad, Montgomery police commissioner, L.B. Sullivan, had his hackles raised. He claimed that had been defamed! But whoa there, pardner. Before seeking punitive damages in a libel action, Alabama law required a public figure to first demand a retraction.  So Sullivan hoisted up his quill and dispatched a written request to the Times asking it — politely one presumes — to publicly retract the ad.

A couple of quick asides for context. There are two kinds of defamation: slander which is spoken and libel which is written. Defamation itself may be defined as a false and unprivileged statement of purported fact that is harmful to someone’s reputation, and disseminated “with fault,” meaning as a result of negligence or malice.  As distinct from “compensatory” damages, which are meant to restore one to his or her prior condition after an alleged “loss,” “punitive” damages are meant to punish, set an example or send a message. 

When, the Times said, “Nah. Nothing to see here,” and failed to dull the burrs that had gotten beneath the commissioner’s saddle, he sued the Times and a group of African American ministers mentioned in the ad. Knowing which side his grits were buttered on, Sullivan “home-courted” his action, bringing suit in the cozy confines of the local county court. 

In the charged atmosphere of the 1960s, the result was predictable. The judge ruled that the ad’s inaccuracies were defamatory “per se,” and the jury returned a verdict in favor of Sullivan, awarding him $500,000 in damages. In this milieu, “per se” may be thought of as “inherently.”

 The Times appealed the verdict to the Supreme Court of Alabama, which, again — perhaps predictably — affirmed it. It then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case. And there is where the rubber met the road.

The question teed up for the court’s consideration was this: did Alabama’s libel law unconstitutionally infringe upon the First Amendment’s freedom of speech and freedom of the press protections?

To sustain a claim of defamation or its squirming polliwog, libel, the First Amendment requires that a party knew, in deciding to publish the information, that the statement was false or reckless. 

‘Actual malice’

The Supremes were unanimous, holding in a 9-0 decision that news publications could not be liable for libel to public officials unless the plaintiff met the exacting standard of “actual malice” in the publication of the false statement. The rule of law applied by the Alabama courts was found unconstitutional for its failure to provide safeguards for freedom of speech and of the press, as required by the First and 14th Amendment.

The decision further held that the evidence presented in the particular case was insufficient to support a judgment for Sullivan.

Writ large, what the court ruled was 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).”

In particular, the decision allowed newspapers greater freedom to report on the widespread chaos and police abuse during the Civil Rights Movement. More broadly, the decision opened the doors to the press to criticize or otherwise comment upon all public servants or officials.

In Sullivan, the Supreme Court adopted the term “actual malice” and gave it constitutional significance.

In his concurring opinion, Justice Black explained, “‘Malice,’ 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.”

Following the Sullivan decision in 1964, the Supreme Court extended its higher legal standard for defamation to all “public figures” (not just public officials). Because of the high burden of proof on the plaintiff and the difficulty of proving the defendant’s real knowledge, these decisions have made it extremely difficult for a public figure to win a defamation lawsuit in the United States.

Sullivan opened up the doors to a free“er” press and helped remove the fetters from the Fourth Estate.

From the lips of Benjamin Franklin, “Freedom of speech is a principal pillar of a free government: When this support is taken away, the constitution of a free society is dissolved, and tyranny is erected on its ruins. Republics and limited monarchies derive their strength and vigor from a popular examination into the action of the magistrates.” 

From Thomas Jefferson, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” And Jefferson again, “Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.”

Sullivan assured that the press must be free, especially to criticize those in power.

It does us all well to remember the essential role of a free press — as the founders wished it to be — in today’s all-too-contentious political huff and swirl.

Rohn K. Robbins is an attorney licensed before the bars of Colorado and California who practices in the Vail Valley with the law firm of Stevens, Littman, Biddison, Tharp & Weinberg LLC. His practice areas include business and commercial transactions, real estate and development, family law, custody and divorce and civil litigation. Robbins may be reached at 970-926-4461 or at his email address,

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