Brief Fact Summary.
Sullivan, the police commissioner, sued New York Times and several black clergymen who had singed the advertisement that dealt with the existence of “an unprecedented wave of terror” against blacks engaged in nonviolent demonstrations in the South.
Synopsis of Rule of Law.
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.”
Criticism of their official conduct does not lose its constitutional protection merely because it is effective criticism and hence diminishes their official reputations.View Full Point of Law
New York Times published a paid, full-page advertisement to Defend Martin Luther King and the Struggle for Freedom in the South. The respondent, a police commissioner, sued the Times and several black clergymen who signed the ad. The respondent rejected the claim that police armed with shotguns ringed the Alabama State College Campus and complained about inaccuracies such as the statement that Dr. King had been arrested seven times. The respondent offered no proof that he had suffered actual pecuniary loss. He recovered a judgment for $500,000 under Alabama libel law.
Does the constitutional protections for speech limit a State’s power to award damages in a libel action brought by a public official against critics of his official conduct?
Yes, because under the First Amendment, erroneous statement is inevitable in free debate and must be protected if the freedoms of expression are to have the “breathing space” that they need to survive. Injury to official reputation affords no more warrant for repressing speech that would otherwise be free than does factual error. Criticism of police officer’s official conduct does not lose its constitutional protection merely because it is effective criticism and hence diminishes their official reputations.
Malice is an elusive, abstract concept, hard to prove or disprove. Requiring that malice be proved provides at best an evanescent protection for the right critically to discuss public affairs. Thus, defendant shall have an absolute, unconditional constitutional right to punish the Times advertisement their criticisms of the police commissioner.
A rule compelling the critic of official conduct to guarantee the truth of all his factual assertions leads to a comparable “self-censorship.” Allowance of the defense of truth does not mean that only false speech will be deterred. Under such a rule, critics of official conduct may be deterred from voicing their criticism, even though it is believed to be true. They would then tend to make only statements which “steer far wider of the unlawful zone.” The rule thus dampens the vigor and limits the variety of public debate. Thus, it is inconsistent with the First Amendment.