The New York Times ran a full-page advertisement for people and groups protesting police treatment of anti-Black sentiment in the South. Sullivan, a commissioner who represented Alabama’s police department, demanded a retraction and sued the Times for libel.
Under the First and Fourteenth Amendments, a public official should be prohibited from recovering damages for a defamatory falsehood relating to her official conduct unless she proves that the statement was made with “actual malice.”
The New York Times ran a full-page advertisement for people and groups protesting police treatment of anti-Black sentiment in the South. Sullivan, a commissioner who represented Alabama’s police department, demanded a retraction and sued the Times for libel. The Times admitted several inaccuracies in its advertisement and that Sullivan had not even been commissioner for three of the four arrests occurred in connection to the protests.
Does the Constitution delimit a State’s power to award damages for libel in actions brought by public officials against critics of their official conduct?
Reversed and remanded.
Yes, the Constitution delimits a State’s power to award damages for libel in actions brought by public officials against critics of their official conduct.
The First and Fourteenth Amendments do not merely delimit but rather prohibit a State from exercising power to award damages to public officials against critics of their official conduct. Justice Black reserves to reverse the case merely on this ground rather than the additional point that an actual malice standard need be established, finding that proof of malice is elusive and abstract.
The First and Fourteenth Amendments afford an absolute and unconditional privilege to citizens and the press to criticize official conduct, though deliberately and maliciously false statements should not qualify as free speech.
D.C. recognizes a common-law action for invasion of privacy and has extended that tort to instances of intrusion, whether by physical trespass or not, where a reasonable person in a plaintiff’s position could expect that the particular defendant should be excluded. At common law, the tort of invasion of privacy is aimed to protect individuals from having their private affairs known to others, and not the right to be left alone. Thus, the tort is generally applied as a remedy for instances of intrusive conduct that involved the gathering of private facts or information through improper means.
While the law does not provide remedy for every annoying thing in life, the law will step in to protect against certain types of intrusive conduct. Here, some parts of General Motors’ investigation into Nader were impermissible as relates to a claim for invasion of privacy, while others were permissible.
Alabama courts are not insulated from constitutional scrutiny because: (1) the Fourteenth Amendment applies because the Times has claimed that application of Alabama state law unconstitutionally restricted its freedom of speech and the press; and (2) the constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech and the press apply despite the commercial nature of the advertisement.
Under Alabama law, libel occurs when the words tend to injure a person’s reputation or bring her into public contempt. The trial court found libel per se when the defamatory statement imputes misconduct on an individual who is a public official. Unless the defendant can prove the truth of the defamatory statement, general damages are presumed. A defendant must be shown to have actual malice for recovery of punitive damages, and the defendant may avoid such damages by retracting the defamatory statement.
The First Amendment protects freedom of expression, even when debate of public issues results in vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials. False statements are inevitable in free debate and must be protected to give breathing space for freedom of expression.
Alabama may not resort to civil law libel to enforce damage awards it would otherwise be prohibited from extracting under a similar criminal statute. Alabama’s criminal libel law caps damages to $500 and a prison sentence of six months. Even more, a defendant charged under the criminal libel law would be afforded additional safeguards (e.g., indictment, proof beyond a reasonable doubt, double jeopardy limitation) that are not provided to civil defendants. That a truth defense is available to defendants is not sufficient alone to prevent a chilling effect on freedom of expression in public debate.
The trial judge erred in charging that general damages concerning malice are presumed. Instead, the Court found that the proof presented to establish actual malice was unconvincing because the Secretary of the Times testified that he believed the advertisement to be “substantially correct.” The Court also questioned whether the defamatory statements could be said to be made “of and concerning” Sullivan, given that no less than six witnesses were necessary to make the connection and there was no reference to Sullivan in the advertisement, either by name or official position.