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New York Times Co. v. Sullivan

Citation. 22 Ill.376 U.S. 967, 84 S. Ct. 1130, 12 L. Ed. 2d 83 (1964)
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Brief Fact Summary.

Petitioner the New York Times Co. published an advertisement in its March 29, 1960, issue that mentioned Respondent Sullivan by position, but not by name. He sued for libel in an Alabama trial court alleging that he was a victim of libel and the Alabama trial judge declared the advertisement to be libelous per se, and that the only question was whether the Petitioner published the advertisement, and that the statements were made concerning the Respondent. This case was upheld by the Alabama Supreme Court, and Petitioner appealed.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

The freedom of the press to publish criticisms of public officials is protected by the First and Fourteenth Amendment, and is only limited if false statements injurious to a public official are made with actual malice.


Respondent, one of three elected Commissioners of the City of Montgomery, Alabama, alleges that he was libeled by statements in a full-page advertisement carried in the New York Times on March 29, 1960. The advertisement entitled “Heed Their Rising Voices” charged that peaceful demonstration of Southern African-American students in behalf of their rights guaranteed by the constitution are being met by an unprecedented wave of terror by those who would deny them their rights. The text concluded by appealing for funds to support the movement, the right to vote and the legal defense of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. None of the statements mention Respondent by name, but mention his position. As some of the events stated in the advertisement have been proven to be untrue, Respondent alleges he has been a victim of libel. During trial Respondent made no effort to prove he suffered any pecuniary loss as result of the libel. The trial judge declared the statements in the advertisement to
be “libelous per se” and not privileged, and therefore that the Petitioner could be held liable if the jury found that they published the advertisement and the statements were made concerning the Respondent.


Whether the Alabama rule of libel, as applied to an action brought by a public official against critics of his official conduct, abridges the freedom of speech and of the press that is guaranteed by the First and Fourteenth Amendments?


Yes. The rule of Law applied by the Alabama courts is constitutionally deficient for failure to provide the safeguards for freedom of speech and of the press that are required by the First and Fourteenth Amendments in a libel action brought by a public official against critics of his official conduct. Furthermore, the proper safeguards the evidence presented in this case is constitutionally insufficient to support the judgment for Respondent. The constitutional guarantees require a federal rule that prohibits a public official from recovering damages for a defamatory falsehood relating to his official conduct unless he proves that the statement was made with “actual malice”, that is, knowledge it was false with disregard of whether it was false or not. In this case there is at most a finding negligence against Petitioner. Finally, the evidence was constitutionally defective in the amount of evidence concerning the connection of the individual referred to in the advertisement an
d the Respondent.
The requirement of malice proves to be too hard to prove or disprove because it is an abstract concept. Therefore would prefer an absolute, unconditional right to publish the advertisement concerning the criticisms of public officials in Montgomery.
That the First and Fourteenth Amendments afford to the citizen and the press an absolute, unconditional privilege to criticize official conduct despite the harms that may flow from excesses and abuses.


The majority, unlike the dissent in this case, does not believe that freedom of speech and press concerning public officials is unlimited. But, the majority believes that this speech and publication is heavily protected, only limited if there is a showing of actual malice. Actual malice is defined as the knowledge that the statements were false and publishing them with reckless disregard of whether they were false or not. It is important to mention that this is a very high standard, and as the court explains in its dicta, and hard for a public official to prove. If an individual is mentioned only by inference there must be more than a scintilla of evidence proving that he has suffered injury as a result of the libelous statements.

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