Citation. New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 967, 84 S. Ct. 1130, 12 L. Ed. 2d 83 (U.S. 1964)
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Brief Fact Summary.
The Plaintiff, Sullivan (Plaintiff) sued the Defendant, the New York Times Co. (Defendant), for printing an advertisement about the civil rights movement in the south that defamed the Plaintiff.
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 – that is, with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.
The Plaintiff was one of three Commissioners of Montgomery, Alabama, who claimed that he was defamed in a full-page ad taken out in the New York Times. The advertisement was entitled, “Heed Their Rising Voices” and it charged in part that an unprecedented wave of terror had been directed against those who participated in the civil rights movement in the South. Some of the particulars of the advertisement were false. Although the advertisement did not mention the Plaintiff by name, he claimed that it referred to him indirectly because he had oversight responsibility of the police. The Defendant claimed that it authorized publication of the advertisement because it did not have any reason to believe that its contents were false. There was no independent effort to check its accuracy. The Plaintiff demanded that the Defendant retract the advertisement. The Defendant was puzzled as to why the Plaintiff thought the advertisement reflected adversely on him. The jury found the ad libe
lous per se and actionable without proof of malice. The jury awarded the Plaintiff $500,000 in damages. The Alabama Supreme Court affirmed. The Defendant appealed.
Is the Defendant liable for defamation for printing an advertisement, which criticized a public official’s official conduct?
No. Reversed and remanded.
* Safeguards for freedom of speech and of the press are required by the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution (Constitution) in a libel action brought by a public official against critics of his official conduct.
* Under Alabama law, a publication is libelous per se if the words tend to injure a person in his reputation or to bring him into public contempt. The jury must find that the words were published of and concerning the plaintiff. Once libel per se has been established, the defendant has no defense as to stated facts unless he can persuade the jury that they were true in all their particulars.
* Erroneous statement is inevitable in free debate and it must be protected if the freedoms of expression are to have the breathing space that the need to survive.
* 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, with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.
* The Supreme Court of the United States (Supreme Court) holds that the Constitution delimits a State’s power to award damages for libel in actions brought by public officials against critics of their official conduct. In this case, the rule requiring proof of actual malice is applicable.
* The Defendant’s failure to retract the advertisement upon the Plaintiff’s demand is not adequate evidence of malice for constitutional purposes. Likewise, it is not adequate evidence of malice that the Defendant failed to check the advertisements accuracy against the news stories in the Defendant’s own files. Also, the evidence was constitutionally defective in another respect: it was incapable of supporting the jury’s finding that the allegedly libelous statements were made of and concerning the Plaintiff.
Concurrence. Justice Hugo Black (J. Black) argued that the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution do not merely “delimit” a State’s power to award damages, but completely prohibit a State from exercising such a power. The Defendant had an absolute, unconditional right to publish criticisms of the Montgomery agencies and officials.
In order for a public official to recover in a defamation action involving his official conduct, malice must be proved. Without the showing of malice, the Supreme Court felt that a defamation action in this case would severely cripple the safeguards of freedom speech and expression that are guaranteed in the First Amendment of the Constitution and applicable to the States via the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution.