Respondent Sullivan, one of the three elected Commissioners of the City of Montgomery, Alabama, brought a civil libel action against the four individual petitioners, who are Negros and Alabama clergymen, and against petitioner the New York Times Company, a New York corporation which publishes daily newspaper.
The Constitution delimits a State’s power to award damages for libel in actions brought by public officials against critics of their official conduct.
Respondent Sullivan, a Commissioner of the City of Montgomery, Alabama, alleged that he had been libeled by statements in a full-page advertisement that was carried in the New York Times. In the advertisement, though none of the statements mentioned respondent by name, he contended that the word “police” referred to him as the Montgomery Commissioner, who supervised the Police Department, so that he was being accused of “ringing” the campus with police when the Black students sang “My Country, Tis of Thee.” Under Alabama law, a publication is libelous if the words tend to injure a person in his reputation or to bring him into public contempt.
Does the Constitution limit a State’s power to award damages in a libel action brought by a public official against critics of his official conduct?
Yes, the Alabama law of civil libel is a form of regulation that creates hazards to protected freedoms markedly greater than those that attend reliance upon the criminal law. A State may not constitutionally bring about by means of a criminal statute is likewise beyond the reach of its civil law of libel. The fear of damage awards under a rule such as the one here may be markedly more inhibiting than the fear of prosecution under a criminal statute. Alabama has a criminal libel law. A person charged with violation of this statute enjoys ordinary criminal-law safeguards but these safeguards are not available to the defendant in a civil action. Thus, the Alabama statute is invalid.
The Constitution delimits a State’s power to award damages for libel in actions brought by public officials against critics of their official conduct. Since this is such an action, the rule requiring proof of actual malice is applicable. While Alabama law apparently requires proof of actual malice for an award of punitive damages, where general damages are concerned malice is presumed. Such a presumption is inconsistent with the federal rule. The power to create presumptions is not a means of escape from constitutional restrictions. Moreover, there is no evidence that the Times published the advertisement without checking its accuracy against the news stories in the Times’ own files. The mere presence of the stories in the files does not establish that the Times knew the advertisement was false, since the state of mind required for actual malice would have to be brought home to the persons in the Times’ organization having responsibility for the publication. The evidence against the Times supports at most a finding of negligence in failing to discover the misstatements, and is constitutionally insufficient to show the recklessness that is required for a finding of actual malice.