Sullivan, the Montgomery city commissioner sued the New York Times for libel when it ran an ad that made false statements about police action directed at students who were part of a civil rights demonstration. A jury awarded Sullivan $500k in damages, and the New York Times appealed.
The First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press may protect libelous words about a public official, unless the statement was made with “actual malice,” or knowledge of or reckless disregard as to its falsity.
During the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, the New York Times published an ad for contributing donations to defend Martin Luther King, Jr. (King), after he was charged with perjury. The ad alleged that King’s arrest for perjury in Alabama was part of a campaign to destroy King’s efforts to integrate public facilities and discourage blacks from voting. The ad included statements, some of which were false, about police action directed against students who participated in a civil rights demonstration. Sullivan, the city police commissioner, claimed that these statements were in reference to him, because his duties included supervision of the police department.
Did Alabama’s libel law unconstitutionally infringe on the First Amendment’s freedom of speech and freedom of press protections?
Yes, Alabama’s libel law is unconstitutional for failure to provide the safeguards for freedom of speech and freedom of the press that are required by the First Amendment.
“Malice” as defined by the Court is an elusive, abstract concept, hard to prove and hard to disprove. As such, the requirement of malice is at best an evanescent protection for the right to discuss public affairs and certainly does not measure up to the sturdy safeguard embodied in the First Amendment.
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. When a statement concerns a public figure, it is not enough to show that it is false, in order for the press to be liable for libel. Instead, the target of the statement must show that it was made with actual malice (with knowledge of or reckless disregard for its falsity) because of the likelihood that someone who knowingly disseminates false information does so with bad intent. Here, the New York Times’ ad had insufficient evidence of actual malice.