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New York Times Co. v. Sullivan
The Case that Changed First Amendment History
Ronald K.L. Collins
First Amendment Center
One cannot talk about the First Amendment without talking about New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964). In that landmark opinion, the principle of freedom of the press bolstered the principle of equality. The case also marked a turning point in the history of the First Amendment, one that promised a new day for freedom of expression in America.
It all began 44 years ago in Montgomery, Alabama, when an infuriated city official brought a libel action against four African-American clergymen and The New York Times.
“Heed Their Rising Voices” was the banner line for the full-page advertisement that ran in The New York Times on March 29, 1960. It was a call to the conscience of the nation: “As the whole world knows by now, thousands of Southern Negro students are engaged in widespread non-violent demonstrations in positive affirmation of the right to live in human dignity as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights.” It went on to charge that “In their efforts to uphold these guarantees, they are being met by an unprecedented wave of terror by those who would deny and negate that document which the whole world looks upon as setting the pattern for modern freedom. . . .”
Such words rankled city official L.B. Sullivan. Turning to an Alabama state court for help, he filed a $500,000 defamation suit against the five defendants. Though unmentioned in the advertisement, Sullivan nonetheless claimed that the charges of police mistreatment implied his involvement. Moreover, he could point to several factual errors (mostly minor) in the ad – something that solidified his case, he thought.
The law at the time was on Commissioner Sullivan’s side. Libelous statements, after all, were entirely outside the realm of First Amendment protection. At least two Supreme Court precedents (one in 1942, another in 1952) made that clear.
The Alabama jury considered the claims of the Alabama city official and thereafter sided with Sullivan -- $500,000 judgment against the five defendants. The Alabama Supreme Court affirmed that award. Without intervention by a federal court, the Alabama verdict would set the stage for a bevy of similar libel actions designed to financially cripple the critics of segregation. Moreover, and to quote federal Judge Alex Kozinski, “if L. B. Sullivan . . . could intimidate The New York Times, the media in this country would become as effective as a toothless guard dog.”
The case went to the nation’s high court, one then presided over by Chief Justice Earl Warren. What would the justices do and how was anybody’s guess.
On March 9, 1964, the Supreme Court rendered its ruling: 9-0 in favor of the respondents, the four clergymen and the newspaper. The judgments had been set aside. Justice William Brennan Jr. spoke for a unanimous Court, with Justices Hugo Black and Arthur Goldberg writing concurring opinions.
What made the case a “landmark” opinion was the fact that this was the first time that the Court invoked the First Amendment to check libel actions. Such actions, wrote Brennan, could no longer claim “talismanic immunity from constitutional limitations.” The Court also questioned the legitimacy of seditious libel, of liability based on criticism of public officials. The “attack upon its validity,” Brennan noted, “has carried the day in the court of history.”
In a turn of phrase destined to become the most celebrated line in First Amendment history, Justice Brennan boldly declared: “[W]e consider this case against the background of a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials” (emphasis added). With those 44 words Brennan captured the essence of freedom of expression, a principle born out of centuries of struggle.
Against that backdrop, Justice Brennan stressed that though some of the statements in the Times advertisement were false, that could not be the end of the matter, if only because “erroneous statement is inevitable in free debate.” He then drew on James Madison, the mind behind the First Amendment: “‘Some degree of abuse is inseparable from the proper use of every thing; and in no instance is this more true than in that of the press.’” Given that, even certain false statements “must be protected if the freedoms of expression are to have the ‘breathing space’ that they ‘need . . . to survive.’”
Brennan then articulated a rule best suited, he thought, to safeguarding freedom of speech and press without granting unbridled reign to intentional falsehoods: a public official cannot recover “damages for a defamatory falsehood relating to his official conduct unless he proves that the statement was made with ‘actual malice’ – that is, with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.”
Justice Black, the godfather of First Amendment absolutism, had some bold words of his own about freedom of the press: “The half-million-dollar verdict does give dramatic proof . . . that state libel laws threaten the very existence of an American press virile enough to publish unpopular views on public affairs and bold enough to criticize the conduct of public officials. The factual background of this case emphasizes the imminence and enormity of that threat.” Such threats contravened the very principle of a free press in a free society.
Stepping back, the Alabama-born justice then took a long look: “To punish the exercise of this right to discuss public affairs or to penalize it through libel judgments is to abridge or shut off discussion of the very kind most needed. This Nation, I suspect, can live in peace without libel suits based on public discussions of public affairs and public officials. But I doubt that a country can live in freedom where its people can be made to suffer physically or financially for criticizing their government, its actions, or its officials.”
The law of land had been revolutionized – the people and the press were now free to speak up and out about racial injustice and other public wrongs without fear of oppressive damage awards being awarded by Alabama-like juries. Now, their “rising voices” could indeed be “heeded.”
It was a great day for the First Amendment. In the words of the famous free-speech scholar, Alexander Meiklejohn, New York Times Co. v. Sullivan was “an occasion for dancing in the streets.”