New York Times Co. v. Sullivan
|The New York Times Co. v. Sullivan|
|Argued January 6, 1964|
Decided March 9, 1964
|Full case name||The New York Times Company v. L. B. Sullivan|
|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)|
|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.|
|Majority||Brennan, joined by Warren, Clark, Harlan, Stewart, White|
|Concurrence||Black, joined by Douglas|
|Concurrence||Goldberg, joined by Douglas|
New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964), was a landmark
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.
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. The Times did not publish a retraction in response to the demand. Instead, its lawyers wrote a letter 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."
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:
The Times subsequently published a retraction of the advertisement upon the demand of Governor
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."
Sullivan won $500,000 in an Alabama court judgment. The state supreme court affirmed 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.
Constitutional law scholar
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."