New York Times Co. v. Sullivan
Decided on Mar. 9, 1964; 376 US 254


To prove libel, a public official must prove that the statement is false and that it was published with a "malicious intent."

 

I. ISSUES II. CASE SUMMARY III. AMICI CURIAE IV. DECISION V. WIN OR LOSS?
I. ISSUES:

A. Issues Discussed: Free speech, libel

B. Legal Question Presented:

Does Alabama's rule of liability for libel - which provides that a publication is "libelous per se" if the words "tend to injure a person... in his reputation" or to "bring [him] into public contempt," without regard to the defendant intent in publishing the statement - as applied to an action brought by a public official against critics of his official conduct, abridge the freedom of speech and of the press that is guaranteed by the First and Fourteenth Amendments?

II. CASE SUMMARY:

A. Background:

In 1960, during the Civil Rights movement in the South, the New York Times published a full page editorial advertisement, "Heed Their Rising Voices", describing unfair and brutal police responses to student protests in Montgomery, Alabama. There were several errors in the ad, none of which were known to the publisher at the time of printing. Although he was not named in the ad, L.B. Sullivan, city commissioner of Montgomery, whose work included supervision of the police filed a law suit for libel. He sued both the New York Times and six people whose names were signed to the ad.

The trial judge instructed the jury that some of the false statements in the advertisement were "libelous per se" and the jury awarded Sullivan damages of $500,000.

The Supreme Court of Alabama upheld the award. On certiorari the Supreme Court reversed.

B. Counsel of Record:
ACLU Side
(Petitioner/Appellant)
Opposing Side
(Respondent/Appellee)
Unavailable Unavailable
C. The Arguments:
ACLU Side
(Petitioner/Appellant)
Opposing Side
(Respondent/Appellee)
Unavailable Unavailable
III. AMICI CURIAE:
ACLU Side
(Petitioner/Appellant)
Opposing Side
(Respondent/Appellee)
Briefs of amici curiae urging reversal, were filed by William P. Rogers, Gerald W. Siegel and Stanley Godofsky for the Washington Post Company, and by Howard Ellis, Keith Masters and Don H. Reuben for the Tribune Company; by Edward S. Greenbaum, Harriet F. Pilpel, Melvin L. Wulf, Nanette Dembitz and Nancy F. Wechsler for the American Civil Liberties Union et al.

Herbert Wechsler argued the cause for petitioner. With him on the brief were Herbert Brownell, Thomas F. Daly, Louis M. Loeb, T. Eric Embry, Marvin E. Frankel, Ronald S. Diana and Doris Wechsler.

M. Roland Nachman, Jr. argued the cause for respondent. With him on the brief were Sam Rice Baker and Calvin Whitesell.


IV. THE SUPREME COURT'S DECISION:

"A State cannot under the First and Fourteenth Amendments award damages to a public official for defamatory falsehood relating to his official conduct unless he proves 'actual malice' - that the statement was made with knowledge of its falsity or with reckless disregard of whether it was true or false.

Factual error, content defamatory of official reputation, or both, are insufficient to warrant an award of damages for false statements unless 'actual malice'... is alleged and proved.

State court judgment entered upon a general verdict which does not differentiate between punitive damages, as to which under state law actual malice must be proved, and general damages, as to which it is 'presumed,' precludes any determination as to the basis of the verdict and requires reversal, where presumption of malice is inconsistent with federal constitutional requirements."

The Supreme Court reversed the jury award and the judgment of the Supreme Court of Alabama.

Justice Vote: 9 Pro vs. 0 Con
  • Brennan, W. Pro (Wrote majority opinion)
  • Clark, T. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Stewart, P. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • White, B. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Harlan, J. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Warren, W. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Black, H. Pro (Wrote concurring opinion)
  • Goldberg, A. Pro (Wrote concurring opinion)
  • Douglas, W. Pro (Joined concurring opinions)
V. A WIN OR LOSS FOR THE ACLU?

The ACLU, as amicus curiae, urged reversal of the Alabama Supreme Court's Judgment; the Supreme Court reversed in a 9-0 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent win.