In a landmark case, New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964), the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a decision by the Supreme Court of Alabama to award damages for libel. This decision constitutionalized libel law and supported freedom of the press and freedom of speech.
New York Times Co. v. Sullivan began as a lawsuit against the publication for mistakes in a full-page civil rights fundraising editorial advertisement titled “Heed Their Rising Voices,” published on March 29, 1960. The ad was created to exploit an incident that happened at Alabama State College, protest the treatment of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. by Alabama law enforcement, and endorse prominent civil rights activists. Activists Bayard Rustin, Harry Emerson Fosdick, and A. Philip Randolph wanted to bring national attention to the protests and were determined to condemn racial violence. (Urofsky, 2019) Rustin, Fosdick, and Randolph told the author of the ad, John Murray, to add prominent people’s names as endorsers to make it
more appealing. Murray protested that those individuals had not given permission to use their names but was reassured by the activists that the endorsers had already approved. The ad cited criticism of Southern violence against African-American civil rights activists and called for the defense of Martin Luther King Jr. The ad contained several minor factual inaccuracies. The city Public Safety Commissioner, L.B. Sullivan, felt that his subordinates’ criticism reflected negatively on him, despite not being specifically named in the ad. Sullivan decided to bring a case against The New York Times with Merton Nachman, a libel lawyer in Montgomery.
The Alabama state court trial took less than three days and ruled in favor of Sullivan. The Times appealed the verdict and sent it to the U.S. Supreme Court. New York Times Co. v.
Sullivan dealt with the deliberation of libel and objective truth. According to Justia, “to sustain a claim of defamation or libel, the First Amendment requires that the plaintiff show that the defendant knew that a statement was false or was reckless in deciding to publish the information without investigating whether it was accurate.”
Supreme Court Justices for New York Times Co. v. Sullivan. Photo by Oyez. On March 9, 1964, Justice William Brennan said, “required in this case to determine for the first time the extent to which the constitutional protections for speech and press limit a State’s power to award damages in a libel action brought by a public official against critics of his official conduct.” This signified a change in the courts that involved looking at the body of law from a new perspective. The Supreme Court found that the lower Alabama courts did not uphold freedom of speech and press protected by the First Amendment, and for the first time in history, the Supreme Court ruled that libel suits were subject to the First Amendment. Sullivan could only have succeeded in winning this libel suit against the Times if he could prove that what the advertisement had said was false. Had Sullivan been able to prove that the Times or contributors knew the statements were false when they published it or continued to publish it despite knowing otherwise, the outcome would have been different.
New York Times Co. v. Sullivan established freedom of speech protection for news media and individuals. Additionally, the case found that libel suits are not a weapon in public discourse or political debate like they are in other countries, including other open democracies. The Court ruled that the First Amendment protects newspapers even when they print false statements, as long as the newspapers did not act with “actual malice,” and gave journalists more freedom to report on public officials. (Plaisance, 2009) In libel law, “malice” means knowledge or recklessness rather than intent, meaning malice is deliberately spreading false information with bad intent. The Supreme Court justices determined that there was no intended malice or attempts to make false statements.
According to the University of Miami News Association, before the trivial decision in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, “courts assumed that the Constitution wouldn’t protect defamatory publications, and state laws did not require plaintiffs in defamation cases to show that defendants had published the defamatory statements with any form of fault.” (2019) The verdict in the Supreme Court laid the groundwork for the protection of well-intentioned journalists and media organizations. It continues to encourage wide-open debate and examination of government and public affairs while protecting the press and freedom of speech. It continues to encourage wide-open debate and examination of government and public affairs while protecting the press and freedom of speech.