New York Times Co. v. Sullivan

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 nameThe New York Times Company v. L. B. Sullivan
Citations376 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 historyJudgment 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)
A newspaper can be held liable for libel for making false defamatory statements about the official conduct of a public official only if the statements were made with knowing or reckless disregard for the truth. Supreme Court of Alabama reversed.
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

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 case, if that person is a public official or 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.

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 Alabama "official authority and police power", the advertisement stated: "They have arrested [King] seven times. ... ", whereas he had been arrested only 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]

Published in New York Times on March 29, 1960

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[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: 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, 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]

Sullivan won $500,000 in an Alabama court judgment. The state supreme court affirmed[8][9] 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.[10][11]

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,[12] was among the authors of the brief of the Times.

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."[13]